Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rode his Israel bashing to unprecedented popularity in the Arab world a few years ago.
He was a hero – first, for demonstratively walking out on President Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009, then for extracting an apology from then deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon for the low couch incident, with the Turkish ambassador and finally for recalling Turkey’s ambassador in Tel Aviv and expelling Israel’s envoy from Ankara, after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.
Hail Erdogan, the masses shouted; hail the new sultan.
It was Erdogan who hinted that he would send warships to accompany “aid” ships to Gaza to relieve the blockade (that never happened). It was Erdogan who was going to show everyone and make a triumphant visit to Gaza last summer (that never materialized). It was Erdogan who brought Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to his knees, or so Ankara’s billboards claimed last year at this time, after Netanyahu apologized – at the behest of US President Barack Obama – for operational errors during the raid on the Mavi Marmara that may have caused loss of life. Nine Turks trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza were killed in the incident.
The harder Erdogan hit at Israel, the higher his popularity soared – at least in the Arab world.
But how the Turkish leader’s fortunes have changed.
Turkish foreign policy went from the “Zero Problems” doctrine with Turkey’s neighbors promoted by Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu (another serial Israel basher), to serious problems with nearly all of them: Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Egypt and Syria – especially Syria.
To top that all off, Erdogan is now facing huge domestic problems – from the Gezi Park protests last summer that he put down with a heavy hand to the swirling corruption scandal in which he is now embroiled.
Erdogan, once portrayed as proof that you can be an ardently religious Muslim leader and a democrat, is the one who banned Twitter in Turkey last week – and YouTube on Thursday.
It is this same Erdogan who this coming Sunday faces key municipal elections in his country that are a test of his strength.
Magically, all of a sudden, just days before Sunday’s elections, reports are sprouting up in the Turkish press – denied in Israel – that soon after the elections are over, ties between Israel and Turkey will be fully restored.
On Tuesday it was the Hurriyet Daily News that quoted Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc as saying that a compensation deal over the Mavi Marmara incident would be signed just after the elections and diplomatic relations fully restored.
And on Thursday Today’s Zaman reported on a visit by Netanyahu’s envoy David Meidan where in a meeting with Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization chief Hakan Fidan it was agreed that the embassies in both countries will be reopened soon – however they were never closed, just not staffed by an ambassador.
The paper also wrote that the two men discussed a possible Erdogan visit to Israel.
What a coincidence. Four years after the Mavi Marmara, and 10 years after Erdogan systematically began dumping on Israel – he said already back in 2004 that Israel was involved in “state terrorism” – stories hit the Turkish media indicating that any minute now there will be a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.
Even Davutoglu told AFP on Wednesday that “there’s a positive momentum and a process in a positive direction.”
What this all indicates is that the senior level of Erdogan’s AK Party have concluded that there are swaths of the electorate not enamored with Erdogan’s foreign policy, including his stridently anti-Israeli positions, and as a result they are trying to create an impression that the problems with Israel are just about to fade away.
There are, however, few takers in Jerusalem, where the widespread assessment is that if Erdogan wins the elections and his political hand is strengthened, he will be less – not more – likely to reconcile with Israel.
Few argue with an evaluation attributed to Israel’s envoy to Turkey Gabby Levy in 2009, and written in a US cable revealed by Wikileaks. “He’s a fundamentalist,” Levy was quoted as saying. “He hates us religiously, and his hatred is spreading.”
Erdogan has been in power since 2003, and has a track record on Israel, and it is a sorry track record that has essentially destroyed the political and security elements – though not the business components – of a once thriving relationship.
No one in Jerusalem is buying the idea that after the municipal elections, if Erdogan wins and his political fortunes receive a boost, all will return to normal.
If anything, the concern is that the opposite will occur.