Taner Akçam: A New Solution to the Middle East Impasse


A Turkish-Israeli Partnership

At best, such a suggestion will be seen as provocative, and more likely dismissed as detached from reality. The two main reasons for this are that 1) these two countries are practically at each other’s throats these days, and 2) both are already contending with immense problems at home and hardly need to take on the whole region. Turkey has for several years now been governed by a single individual, de facto if not de jure, and its leader is far from having any solutions to the many problems that beset his country, whether the fundamental national rights for its Kurdish population or the myriad problems of social rights and democracy. As for Israel, its government has become an increasingly like Apartheid South Africa. For this reason, we should perhaps forget about putting these two countries forth as candidates capable of solving the problems of the Middle East; we could more easily claim that it is precisely these two countries that have created the problems in the first place! So why the title? Why the proposal?

One of the main reasons, which I will argue below, is that I consider the question of internal democracy-based problems face by these two states as a separate from that of their international relations, namely their relations with one another and their roles in the Middle East. I am of the school that believes that, in the field of international relations, most states basically operate according to the same logic; in other words, it is unrealistic to separate them into “good” and “bad” states.[1]


What, then, is the Fundamental Problem?

The central question to be answered is how peace and stability can be achieved in the Middle East. It is a question that deserves an honest attempt at an answer, even if it turns out that we are simply “pinning our hopes on an unrealistic possibility.” Even with just an average understanding of the region, we can already identify its three main problems. The first of these is the existence of authoritarian Arab regimes, which oppress their own people (and to these we can also easily include Iran). The second is the existence of two nations, the Palestinians and the Kurds, who do not have their own state, or one that would guarantee their basic rights. The current structures of the Israeli and Turkish states, which is one of our main topics of discussion here, makes them unwilling to address the fundamental needs of these two nations. And the third problem is the continual interference of the great powers (namely, the EU, US, and Russia) in the region. They, too, are a cause of some of the region’s problems. As a result, the Middle East is complete mess, and it has long been so.

There’s one additional factor that turns the situation into an utter confusion: the fact that the relative balance of power in the region during the Cold War was completely overturned as a part of the new post-Soviet order. We can even argue that the disruption of the regional balance of power was not simply a result of the new global order, but was actually one of the factors influencing it.

The Cold War came to an end at the beginning of the 1990s, but the search for a stable post-Cold War order appears to have begun (or perhaps accelerated) in recent years. The delay is somewhat due the severe weakening of Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. The U.S. and NATO initially viewed this collapse as an opportunity to isolate and “surround” their former foe by pursuing a blatant expansionist policy under the pretext of creating a new “liberal order” for the world, but Russia has since reemerged from the ashes, while China has begun to translate its new-found economic power into a greater geo-political assertiveness, becoming a global power in the process, and the U.S.’s short-lived hegemonic reign as the world’s sole super-power is now slowly coming to an end.

The race to create a new world order has accelerated, thereby adding a level of instability that may encourage the outbreak of new regional wars. Not only traditional areas of instability such as the Middle East but even Europe itself are being destabilized. In some ways, we appear to have returned to the “balance of power” politics of the late 19th century.

Against this background, the question I have sought to answer is this: How can some level of stability for the Middle East be achieved, and how can the states and peoples of the region eventually live in peace and stability?

My answer is rather simple: peace and stability for the region are attainable through the establishment of some sort of regional hegemony, but as long as this is missing, peace and stability will be lacking. Only in periods where some sort of regional hegemony prevailed in the Middle East has some level of stability existed. This is one reason for the ever-more-frequent references of scholars and pundits to the Ottoman period of regional domination. To be sure, such a regional hegemony could also be the result of balance of power policies by the super powers such as US and Russia, but regional stability would not be viable in the long-term if it was not dependent on powers emerging from within the region itself.

My central argument is that establishment of a regional hegemony is the key for stability, but also that no single domestic power should be allowed to possess the level of power and opportunity to single-handedly establish such. Rather, such hegemony could (and should) emerge through an effective regional coalition. My candidates for this role are Turkey and Israel. Even were the argument for a regional hegemony to be accepted, the first objection to my proposal would doubtless be that the current reality of Turkish-Israeli relations does not lend itself to close collaboration and that the material foundation for such cooperation simply does not exist.

So then, why even put forward the suggestion? Some social scientists argue that the assumptions that underpin a theory need not conform to reality. Indeed, the economist Milton Friedman maintains that the best theories “will be found to have assumptions that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions….The explanatory power of a theory is all that matters.” Even so, I don’t believe that my arguments are based on ‘unrealistic or false assumptions.’

My argument can be stated thus: if Turkey and Israel, the two strongest and most important powers in the region are unwilling or unable to work together to resolve the problem of regional hegemony, then the region can assuredly look forward to nothing more than an endless succession of wars, civil strife, and oppression.


A Reexamination of the Region’s Problems 

The point of departure for my argument is the understanding that the prevailing problem in the Middle East is a structural one: despite—or perhaps because of–its penchant for authoritarianism our region possesses an “anarchic” character. When a problem arises, there is no overriding authority to which to appeal and the existing states engage one another in a broad and constant struggle for hegemony. Additionally, various national, religious and cultural groups (non-state actors) within these very states are engaged in their own struggles for greater cultural and national rights. For each state and not-state actor, the struggle against the “other” retains a central importance, and they all seek support beyond their borders in their battles for supremacy.

The efforts to achieve foreign intervention and/or assistance appear as an attractive means by which to successfully resolve these internal struggles. Such involvement may solve some of the problems to the benefit one or other of the actors (and usually in favor of powerful nation states), but such interventions more often tend to simply prolong clashes and the existence of the region’s problems, thereby highlighting the chronic structural weakness of its political entities. The question thus remains: how can the region emerge from this negative cycle and once-and-for-all solve its problem of structural weakness and conflict?

Let me again describe the structural problem: the principal reason for the wars and instability in our region is foreign interference and the struggle for hegemony that make such intervention possible. In these clashes between states and with non-state actors, the region will remain ever open and vulnerable to intervention so long as the actors refuse to abandon a zero-sum politics that lends itself to foreign interference. The only answer is for the states of the region is to abandon such policies and to seek out ways to create a regional hegemony, because no state in the region can solve this problem on its own. Only through a regional coalition can some sort of solution be reached.

There are three more details that I would like to add here: First, “seeking the assistance of foreign powers” is an accusation frequently leveled by the various nation-states in the region against groups seeking greater rights. Ironically, every single state in the region has at one time or another resorted to seeking and receiving the assistance of some larger foreign protector; Turkey has NATO; Israel had the U.S., Syria (and, until the late 1970s, Iraq) has Russia. These are but a few of the more enduring examples. Indeed, the dominant culture in our region is not the “struggle against foreign intervention”, it’s simply the struggle to ensure that the intervention is undertaken on one’s own behalf.

Second, any change in this mindset regarding “foreign intervention” must first come from the region’s states. Those groups (non-state actors) seeking greater rights do not possess the political or military power to either break the vicious cycle or to establish any hegemony in the region. Even though these groups might, during certain periods, acquire the possibility of having a more influential role through such external support, they would find it difficult to achieve their aims through direct confrontation with the nation-states of the region. The principal actors were and will for the time being remain the nation-states.

Third, in all discussions of and proposals for solving the region’s problems, the great powers are assumed (and rightly so) to be the principal actors, so that any discussion of options will always take into consideration their direct involvement. Indeed, few if any serious political proposals either call for or envision the withdrawal of the great powers from the region.

The purpose of this piece is to invite others to consider the possibility of regional solutions that would make such intervention ineffective or unnecessary. I am proposing the creation of a coalition or alliance of regional actors strong enough to put an end to the various struggles for regional hegemony. But before descending into the details, I would like to first like to examine the two familiar yet very different understandings of the region and its problems, especially those found in Turkey.


Two Wrong Premises

To the questions of why long-term stability is been so difficult to establish in Turkey and why it has thus far failed to find a way to live in peace and security with its neighbors two broadly opposing answers can be given. The first answer is that the problem lies in the “domestic factors”. According to this argument, the Rechtstaat, or “rule of law” which is based upon the principle of “separation of powers”, does not actually exist, thereby preventing the emergence of a true democracy and the serious grappling with human rights issues. Rather, it opens the way for an “economy of plunder” to emerge, a kleptocracy that produces enormous social injustices, corruption and crime principal among them. According to this view, Turkey can only establish tranquility and stability both at home and it the region if it can solve its political problems regarding democracy and human rights and its economic problems resulting from its many social injustices. According to this view, the key for Turkey being able to solve the region’s problems is for it to first put it’s own house in order.

The other side of the argument is that the solution lies not within Turkey itself, but with the great powers and with their policies towards Turkey. According to this argument, there have indeed been periods in which Turkey has by its own power come close to resolving many of its outstanding problems, but outside powers would not allow Turkey to grow too powerful.  Rather, they are constantly creating new problems and obstacles for the country so that it will never achieve its full potential and put itself on stable political and economic footing; in such a manner they succeed in making the country struggle against itself and thereby remain weak.  I described this second argument elsewhere as a policy of “neither killing nor healing”.


Two Wrong Answers

In fact, both of these answers only deal with a part of the reality, and, by expressing partial truths, they are ultimately incorrect. Both of these views rest in large part on the faulty understanding that there is an inherent connection between domestic and foreign policies of a state. The principal error of the first argument is in its belief that a country’s establishment of a democratic system respectful of human rights is the key to solving the region’s problems. This view imagines a Turkey, having solved its own internal problems, that can present itself as a model for the region and/or even can design the region according its democratic principles. This is a largely flawed notion, the product of a certain type of liberal delusion.

A functioning democracy in Turkey based on rule of law and separation of power is not and cannot in and of itself be a guarantee that Turkey follows a proper regional policy. If it were otherwise, the democratic nations of the world would be the ones pursuing the most equitable and honest foreign policies. There are numerous examples that show this not to be the case: a democratic political system is not a magic formula for correct or honest foreign policy. It is simply wrong to draw a line of connection between a country’s internal and foreign policies, because the two policies are conceived on the basis of separate realities; it must be admitted that authoritarian regimes can just as easily pursue honest and decent foreign policies than democratic ones.

For this reason, and without denying its importance, to consider the establishment of a democratic regime in Turkey as the foundation of some sort of solution to the problems of the region is a liberal error. But it is more than just a flawed conception; in addition, it carries within it the danger—albeit not openly expressed—of proposing a foreign policy centered on exporting its own democracy to the rest of the region. It would not be mistaken to see such a policy as “expansionist.” To further clarify my point: any leader who, upon coming to power in a country, proclaim their intention of basing their foreign policy on the “defense of democracy and human rights” and promise to “act accordingly” is lying.

In this event, I would recall the simple truth that a country’s internal and foreign policies are different and must be viewed in such a light. Foreign policy is more than simply issues like democracy and human rights; other issues, like security, control of regional energy sources, sovereign rights and the struggle with other nations for hegemony all demand consideration as well. If a country wishes to design and pursue a foreign policy solely on the basis of “democracy and human rights” and the desire/demand to export these to other countries, this might well be understood not only as an “expansionist” threat, but also a cover for their true intentions such as security, questions of sovereign rights, and the control of energy supplies and other natural resources. In essence, what I am saying here is that the picture portrayed above closely resembles the history of the West’s relations with Turkey and many third world countries, and has been recognized as the sheer hypocrisy it is.

Those who offer the second answer to Turkey’s problems, namely, that Turkey’s problems do not ultimately derive from its internal issues, but from “foreign sources” are also wrong on one account. They simply ignore the problem that has been created by Turkey’s singlehanded attempts at regional hegemony. The hegemony by a single country is an event that neither the global powers nor the region’s state and non-state actors are likely to look on favorably. Indeed, one of the reasons for the emergence of some regional problems is Turkey’s growing power and influence and it’s not-so-veiled intention of dominating the region.


Wrong Conceptions of Security

Another crucial aspect intentionally overlooked by those seeing Turkey’s problems as externally-generated is the flawed security strategies they espouse, strategies that ultimately lead to a weakening of the country and thereby prepare the ground for foreign intervention. Since in their minds the fundamental problem of Turkey is the “foreign threat” they focus primarily—obsessively, even–on the question of the state’s sovereign rights or, in the current terminology, the fear of the state being “broken up” and concerns for its continued viability. The foreign threat is conceived of as something against which a counter-policy must be developed, and security strategies are developed accordingly.

Much ink has been spilled over the fact that, in general, such strategies are based on an understanding whereby foreign threats have already or are attempting to infiltrate the country itself; as a result, national, religious, or cultural groups demanding greater rights, along with opponents of the state, are all viewed as either “foreign agents” or as the willing servants thereof. The security policies that are developed are known to aim at the reduction of the operating space of these foreign agents and, if necessary, their complete elimination. It is therefore the natural result of such a security conception that civil society organizations and other rights advocates are eventually outlawed and authoritarian regimes are established.

Moreover, beyond its creation of the aforementioned structural problem that opens the region up to more foreign intervention this understanding also pushes the Middle East toward greater violence, trapping it in a cycle of bloodletting and oppression. It is possible to give numerous examples of the destruction wrought by the state’s introduction of policies that view its various ethno-religious minorities as a security threat. Numerous examples can be given from the early 19th century until now of such state actions in the region, from the Ottoman state’s oppression or elimination of its Christian populations—most notably through the genocides directed at its Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian populations, as well as the oppressive policies directed at its Jewish minority, the massacres of Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, those of the Palestinians, and various ethno-religious groups in Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.


The Baggage of Turkish History

I would like to emphasize a third aspect here, one that the two responses discussed above either willfully ignore or tend to overlook: the fact that the Turkish Republic was established as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire and that, as a result, it bears the burden of Ottoman history. Whether as a democratic or authoritarian entity, as long as Turkey fails to come to terms with its history every move it makes in the region will be interpreted by its neighbors as that of a regional power desiring to reestablish its former domination.

Until such a step is taken to alter the view of the region’s various state and (ethno-religious) non-state actors toward Turkey and the Turks, and as long as the desires and opinions of these various sectors are not seen as worthy of consideration in determining the politics of the region, it will be difficult if not impossible for Turkey to contribute to the resolution of the region’s problems. I use the term “contribute” here because, even were Turkey to indeed take such steps, I do not believe that it possesses the power or influence to bring about regional stability on its own accord. Indeed, this is the basis for my proposal for a regional coalition. Moreover, as I previously stated, I do not think that any regime’s possession of a “good” (i.e., democratic and liberal) character can serve as a guarantee of its honest and constructive role in international relations.

In summation, a possible solution for the region:

a)would directly involve the transforming of the prevailing mindset that always seeks foreign intervention, that is founded upon a concept of necessity of struggle for hegemony against other nation-states and/or against the various national, ethnic, and religious minorities within its borders;

b)would have at its basis the understanding that the unprecedented growth in power and influence of a single nation-state in the region, whether democratic or not, and/or the desire to establish sole hegemony over region would not bring a solution to the region’s problems, but simply more chaos;

c)would base itself not the struggle between the various nation-states of the region but the establishment of an effective regional coalition that would be able to achieve and establish a regional hegemony.

d)This effective coalition would then offer the possibility of transforming the “security strategy” pursued by the region’s state actors, a strategy that views the various ethno-religious and national non-state actors within its borders almost by definition as a security threat, and it would play a constructive role in facilitating the process of democratization within all the states in the region.

The things that have been said up to this point must be seen as an explanation for the vicious cycle of oppression and instability that has beset the region for decades, as well as offering a blueprint for how Turkey and Israel, acting together, might finally be able to break it. We now come to the second part of my argument: why these two countries are the most suitable candidates for establishing such a coalition, and how, by doing so, they may well succeed in reversing the region’s long-standing misfortune.



Why Turkey and Israel? Unraveling the Gordion Knot


The central idea of my last piece was that the constant struggles for hegemony between the various states (as well as the ethnic, religious, and cultural groups seeking greater rights) are the chief problem besetting the region, and that this had made it ripe for foreign interference and intervention. The challenge then, is to figure out how to break out of the vicious cycle that makes foreign intervention possible. I am of the belief that the establishment of some regional hegemony is the decisive action necessary to allow the region to emerge from this unfortunate situation. Even so, no single state can or should rise to such a state of regional hegemony; rather, I suggest, such a condition can only be achieved by a regional coalition.

Considering what the Franco-German partnership succeeded in achieving for Europe, I believe that something similar should be—must be–attempted in the Middle East. Anything else will simply mean a continuation of the current morasses.

For reasons I state below, Turkey and Israel as the two strongest candidates for establishing such a coalition:

1.Despite the nature of the two countries’ regimes and the serious problems they face due to their treatment of their respective national-religious minorities, Turkey and Israel are still the two countries in the region who have engaged most extensively in a democratization process. It is true that the present governments of both countries view each other as enemies and would not enter into any coalition to solve the region’s problems, but there are political currents in both countries which have embraced the policies I have suggested and which have the potential to collaborate for such purposes at such time in the future when conditions might allow it.

2.Both Turkey and Israel share similar security concerns. Both contain within their borders national-religious groups part of which live in neighboring states and which are seen not only to be domestic but also an external security treat. Both states place the utmost importance on ensuring the rights of the national-religious groups within other states borders. The way the politics and concerns of Turkey and Israel seem to mirror each other might well create a common ground for solving the problems of the ethno-religious non-state actors in the region. At the very least, both states could start with removing one of the main obstacles to regional peace and stability, namely, the inability to view these groups’ demands for greater rights as anything but a security threat because Turkey’s relationship with the Palestinians, and Israel’s with the Kurds can help the other state to smooth the problems.

3.The Kurds and the Palestinians, both of whom are struggling to establish their own nation-state within the borders of the states in which they live, states dominated by another ethnicity, can serve as the “binding agent” bringing these two countries together. If one compares the other alternatives, for examples the armed struggle of these groups against the states and their striving for political independence against the wishes of both states, Kurdish and Palestinian demands can be solved more easily by a regional coalition.

4.Both countries also resemble one another in regard to their respective founding myths. In both cases, past experiences and events outside of the countries’ present-day borders hold significant places in the foundational myths of both nations. Among the Turks, the lands lost by the Ottoman Empire and the massacres of Muslims in the Balkans and Caucasus, and among the [Jewish] Israelis, the Holocaust, serve as “vindicating myths”, principal raisons d’etre (albeit, in different measures and degrees) for the establishment of the current states..[2]

  1. The sense of being isolated and in a hostile region, regardless of how far this perception is from current realities, plays a central role in the security strategies of both states. The guarantees that they might give to one another would have a major political and psychological role in helping these two countries to overcome this abiding perception of isolation and siege.At the very least, it would help to reduce to use this argument.

6.Both states have deep and well-developed relations with the West. Despite disagreements and disputes with the West, and despite its manifold problems, Turkey remains NATO’s principal member in the region. For its part, Israel still enjoys overwhelming western support, having been assisted in its creation by the West’s guilt over the Jewish experience in World War Two. The closeness of both states to the West offers them the chance of reducing the latter’s interference in the region in the most unproblematic manner. The more support that Turkey and Israel will show one another, the greater the potential to reduce regional intervention and interference by others.

  1. One result of the changes in the world’s power balance in recent years is that both the U.S. and Europe are likely to look more favorably upon the idea of abandoning its periodic interventions and/or involvement and instead leaving the region in the hands of a coalition of strong, western-leaning regional partners that could achieve some sort of peace and stability. Both the U.S. (terror) and the EU (mass immigration and terror) share similar security concerns. Turkey and Israel are the two countries able to provide some guarantees in these matters.

8.Russia faces similar problems. The region is, after all, Russia’s backyard. Especially since the end of the Cold War, Russia feels itself increasingly surrounded by NATO and might well look favorably upon an initiative that would reduce western presence (and, thereby, it’s own isolation) in the Middle East. It is no coincidence that both Turkey and Israel have in recent years developed warmer and friendlier relations with Russia.

  1. Both countries are as much military as economic powers in the region. As such, they both possess the ability to ensure that the region’s energy resources are used for its needs and not exploited for the purpose of obtaining regional hegemony. A political-economic and military coalition between these two states might have a deterrent effect against both regional and global threats.
  2. If the ultimate goal here is the creation of rule of law founded on the principle of separation of powers, and a system that honors the democratic process and basic human rights, then the stability that such a coalition could help to produce could certainly bring the attainment of such a goal much closer to reality—certainly morasses than any alternative currently on offer.

My argument could be expanded further, but if the problem of foreign intervention is indeed the greatest problem facing the region, and if these two states play such a central role in this intervention, then together and through mutual support they could likely reduce  the possibility of intervention and bring order and security to the region.

It would be like promoting the two most mischievous students to run the class. By abandoning their mischief and assuming greater responsibility for the sake of order and stability, such an action would represent the beginning of a solution to the class’s (and in this case, the region’s) problems.

To be sure, one could offer counter-arguments to every one of the claims and arguments I have made here, but I would like to list some these counter arguments that I assume are already well knownto the reader:

The principal problem of the region is not the intervention of foreign powers; these interventions are not the source of the problem, they are the result. The main problems of the Middle East are: a)dictatorial Arab regimes (Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.); b) Turkey and Israel and the policies they follow, regardless of the nature of their governments. Thus, as long as the Arab regimes remain dictatorial, not democratic and neither Turkey nor Israel alter their current (and long-held) policies, the region will see no stability. The failure of both states to resolve the problem of their largest ethno-religious minority (namely, the Kurds and Palestinians) are one of the major sources of the region’s instability.

Both countries have played important roles in the weakening of many of the Arab regimes, such as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, and of their sinking into civil war and chaos.

The Palestinians and the Kurds are two peoples without a state of their own and their ongoing failure to achieve such has been a source of great unrest for the region. Palestinian and Kurdish liberation are one of the keys to the liberation of the entire region. Even if it does not completely eliminate foreign intervention, it will reduce it greatly. On all these points, however, so long as there is no significant change in the Arab regimes or in the policies of Turkey and Israel, there will be no need to grapple with such fantasies as the establishment of a regional hegemony. The proposal to establish such a coalition is a wrong-headed proposal that rests on the false assumption that foreign intervention is the main problem besetting the region.

My purpose here in repeating the opposing views (to which further similar arguments could no doubt be added) is this: The Middle East is caught in a vicious cycle of oppression, bloodshed and foreign intervention, one from which it is unable to extract itself. In order to break this cycle, in order to unravel this Gordian knot, what we need to do is not simply to go over the same old familiar ideas again and again; we need to open ourselves up to other options and opportunities, to consider what other possibilities are attainable or at least conceivable.

To repeat my argument: so long as the two leading powers in the Middle East, Turkey and Israel do not act together to bring about some sort of regional hegemony, the inevitable result will simply be more wars.


My hope is that this piece will serve as the starting point for a productive discussion on the subject…


[1]This is the central argument of “realistic school” in international relation. For further information, see: John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics(W. W. Norton & Company: New York, London, 2001)

[2]I must stress here that my intention is not equate the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan and Caucasian Muslims with the Holocaust. Rather, it is simply to emphasize the similar perceptions among the founding generation of both Israeli and Turkish state cadres.

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