Bernard Lewis, one of the world’s greatest experts on the Islamic world, told me
a few years ago that the emerging younger Iranian generation and the alienated
middle class would bring about regime change. However, he also predicted that
Turkey would evolve into an aggressive Islamist dictatorship and could become
the greatest threat to Israel.
Alas, his prediction about Turkey is being
When, 12 years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed the reins of
leadership in Turkey, many expressed concern that beneath the veneer of
moderation and commitment to a fusion of moderate Islam and democracy, the real
Erdogan was a fanatical Muslim whose objective was to transform Turkey into an
authoritarian Islamic state. They were vindicated.
The military, which
controlled the nation since Kemal Ataturk created a secular Turkish Republic in
1923, undoubtedly displayed autocratic tendencies in the course of its
relentless determination to suppress Muslim extremism. Yet in terms of freedom
of speech and democratic process, the situation today is significantly worse
than before Erdogan.
Erdogan imprisoned thousands of Turkish citizens on
spurious grounds without adequate trials; one in four former Turkish generals is
currently languishing in prison; journalists, nonconforming academics and
politicians have been summarily arrested; dissenting newspapers were closed
To some extent, leaders can be judged by their
Erdogan proudly accepted a “human rights award” from the late
Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi and welcomed as his guest Omar Bashir, the
genocidal leader of Sudan, a certified war criminal responsible for the deaths
of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.
Erdogan denies that Hamas
is a terrorist organization, referring to its adherents as heroic liberation
fighters and treating visiting Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh virtually like a head
of state. Last month he invited the other Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, to be
his personal guest of honor at a state Iftar dinner to mark the end of
Erdogan also expanded Turkish diplomatic ties to the most
radical Muslim terrorist regimes and organizations, including until recently the
Syrians and the Iranian ayatollahs who he continues to insist are entitled to
become a nuclear power. Now having parted ways with Assad, he has closely allied
himself with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim
Clearly his objective is to emerge as the popular leader of
a neo-Ottoman Sunni Muslim arc.
To promote this objective, he has
consciously exploited popular hatred of Israel as a vehicle by which to gain
widespread support from the Arab masses.
To this end, he has transformed
Turkey’s former close alliance with Israel into one of aggressive confrontation
and demonization, emerging as one of the leading Arab states directing hostility
against the Jewish state.
The first public display of this behavior was
his bitter and contrived confrontation of President Shimon Peres at the World
Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009. Millions of television viewers saw him
excoriating Peres over alleged Israeli war crimes and then dramatically storming
out of the conference.
The deterioration in Turkish-Israel relations
climaxed in 2010 when nine members of the IHH, a Turkish government-sanctioned
jihadist terrorist group, were killed on board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish boat
in the Gaza “peace” flotilla, after having attacked the IDF boarding party with
metal bars, clubs and knives.
An independent Israeli commission of
inquiry vindicated the IDF actions as self-defense. A separate UN commission
ruled that while there may have been excessive violence, the Israeli action was
entirely consistent with international law.
However, Erdogan exploited
this incident to intensify the confrontation with Israel. He demanded that the
Israeli government apologize, pay restitution to families and unconditionally
lift the blockade on Gaza.
Seeking to ease tensions, the Israelis
expressed regret at the loss of lives and, without accepting blame, sought to
reach an accommodation including a rumored offer to pay $6 million to families
of the victims.
But it soon became clear that Erdogan was seeking
confrontation rather than compromise.
The Turkish government downgraded
its diplomatic representation and intensified its global campaign to demonize
Israel, seeking to have it barred from participating at all international
Last month, on the second anniversary of the flotilla, the
Turkish High Court issued indictments against Israeli military officers for
their alleged involvement in the incident, pronouncing life sentences on the
former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and other military
Campaigns against Israel were accompanied by intensification of
anti-Semitic propaganda in the government- controlled media which included
ghoulish television dramas (Valley of the Wolves) portraying Israelis as dealers
in body parts, murderers of innocent children and other foul criminal activity.
Not surprisingly, Turkish opinion polls reflect a 76 percent negative attitude
Erdogan has been especially viral in his denunciation of
Israel’s targeted assassinations of terrorists. Yet when a number of Syrian
shells errantly crossed his border, he had no hesitation in launching a brutal
military attack, in stark contrast to Israel’s reluctance to maximize its
deterrent capabilities in response to missiles continuously being launched
against Israeli civilians from Gaza.
Nor does Erdogan display any
scruples in employing the fiercest means to suppress protests or efforts by the
Kurdish minority to achieve greater autonomy or independence.
One of the
most disconcerting aspects of this confrontation is that despite his concerted
campaign to delegitimize Israel, Erdogan has successfully forged a close
alliance with President Barack Obama, who describes him as “an outstanding
partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues.” Erdogan
reciprocates, stating “from the moment Barack became president, we upgraded the
status of our relations from a strategic partnership to a model partnership, on
which he also placed a lot of importance.”
Indeed, following pressure
from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Obama agreed to bar Israel – a
NATO partner country and member of NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue – from
participating in a NATO summit which took place in Chicago.
demanded that NATO intelligence information be denied to
Likewise, Turkey succeeded in excluding Israel from a special
meeting of the World Economic Forum. More outrageously, Obama caved in to
Turkey’s demand that Israel – the Western country which has suffered more
terrorism than any other – be barred from a global forum on
Israel can do little to lessen the tension. Those who
suggest that by prostrating and groveling towards Turkey Israel would overcome
this enmity are naïve and misguided. In the context of an aggressive Islamist
government such behavior conveys weakness and surrender and would only further
embolden Erdogan into making even greater demands. If we cannot generate
friendship it is far better that we command respect.
However, the Turks
would hesitate to demonize and delegitimize us if they believed that they would
be penalized. We could surely expect our principal ally, the United States, to
stand firm and not kowtow to Turkish efforts to isolate or demean us.
writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com.