The View from Turkey

As Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hardens his positions against Israel and deepens his ties with Egypt, his ratings at home rise.

October 10, 2011 00:56
Erdogan visits Egypt

Erdogan visits Egypt 521. (photo credit: AMR ABDALAH DALSH / REUTERS)

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE ISRAELI OPERATION CAST LEAD, Turkish ministers were eager to confide to anyone who would stop to listen that Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarded military action against Gaza not just brutal and wrongheaded but as a personal betrayal.

Not two days before the operation began, then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert had been in Ankara in pursuit of a settlement with Syria. Turkey was beginning to flatter itself that it had at last found its role as a peacemaker confirmed and that its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” was about to bear fruit as country after country in the Middle East would push conflict to the back burner.“Zero problems,” the catchphrase of Erdogan’s foreign policy architect, Ahmet Davutoglu, was based on the belief that, as the big economy of the region, Turkey had an interest in defusing conflict. Removing land mines and opening visa-free travel with Syria to unleash a wave of free-spending tourists was deemed the best way of taming the Al-Assad regime just as de-securitizing (in lay terms “ignoring”) the threat from Iran would be more effective in reducing nuclear risk than sanctions.

Trying to reconcile Israel to its neighbors as well was far from incidental to this strategy.

That conflict was seen as the key irritant, which kept all other conflicts inflamed.

Bringing about a settlement between Israel and Syria was the glittering prize. Yet the moment Olmert went home, he donned a cap of war and engaged in retribution that Turkish public opinion regarded as disproportionately bloody. It was this perceived breach of faith that still rankled Erdogan when he launched into his “one minute” tirade at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, in January 2009, during which he accused Shimon Peres of being a man who “knew very well how to kill.” In the days that followed the Turkish premier discovered that lack of diplomacy definitely has its rewards.

Erdogan’s personal standing in domestic opinion polls soared by a full ten percent.

From then on, the course was set. Erdogan developed a Pavlovian response: criticizing Israel was in his own mind both morally correct and brought the instant gratification of applause from his domestic constituents.

History is likely to record Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party as a moderating force in Turkish politics. The AK party came to power in 2002, at a time when Turkey was emerging from its worst post-war crisis. Steady economic growth during their decade in office (last year GDP expanded by 8.9 percent) was proof that Turkish institutions could be made to work.

When Erdogan entered the political scene by becoming mayor of Istanbul in 1994, that city had a population of somewhere over 7 million. Now that figure is over 13 million.

His is the voice of rapid urbanization, giving soothing assurance that popular expectations can be met.

Politically, too, Mr. Erdogan has been able to give assurance that Turkey can accommodate its own diversity. The creed of a rival post-war generation of politicians has been that Kurdishness or other minority beliefs should at best be tolerated, at worst suppressed. That the AK party tries to find a greater place for Islam in Turkish society may annoy the very “statist” uncivil-libertarian left, but as it lobbies for greater leeway for Islam, the concomitant is that it does the same for other faiths.

Turkey’s small remaining Jewish population, which numbers just under 25,000, regards the AKP as a fundamentalist threat to their right to remain, but this is simply not the case. In an interview with Egyptian Dream TV in mid-September, Erdogan advocated the adoption of Turkish-style secularism as freedom of belief and equality before the law.

AT THE SAME TIME, ERDOGAN’S political roots are in a more overtly Islamicist movement. When he looks over his shoulder to challenges to his leadership or threats to his party’s supremacy in the polls, it is the religious and nationalist right that concerns him. This may explain his government’s reluctance to prevent the Mavi Marmara from setting out on its fateful voyage in May 2010, a year before a general election. Prudence might have suggested that the government lean on the captain not to leave port. Yet at a time when Turkish sympathy for Gaza was running strong, it would have been a political risk to stop the ship from setting sail – especially since, at least in part, that support had been orchestrated by Erdogan’s own wife.

Indeed, it was Emine Erdogan’s face that graced posters calling attention to the brutality in Gaza and she hosted a much-publicized “summit” of wives and daughters of other regional leaders to condemn the invasion in January 2009. Asma Assad, Muammar Gaddafi’s daughter Aishe and Queen Rania of Jordan were among the eight attendees, who also received messages of support from figures such as Carla Bruni Sarkozy, wife of the French president.

Once Turkish blood was shed, Turkey’s options were more limited still. The Mavi Marmara incident has been presented as a unique example of a foreign military causing the deaths of Turkish civilians in peacetime.

This is not strictly true. In 1989, two Syrian MiG jets shot down a civilian aircraft over Turkish territory performing a cadastral survey over what is still, technically, the disputed region of Hatay; two pilots and three technicians died. This was at a time when Damascus was seen as harboring the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as an insurance policy against Turkey’s ability to control the flow of the Euphrates River. The Syrians did in the end issue an apology and pay compensation. The current Turkish government was convinced it could settle for nothing less from Israel.

The rest is history.

When the UN Palmer Report on the Mavi Marmara incident was leaked to “The New York Times” on September 1, it appeared to undermine Turkey’s deep sense of indignation.

While it called upon Israel to show regret, the report did not demand an admission of guilt in the form of an apology nor did it support Ankara’s insistence that the embargo of Gaza violates international law.

The Turkish government felt forced to go on the offensive, downgrading diplomatic relations and threatening to use gunships to run the Gaza blockade and to police off-shore drilling in the Republic of Cyprus.

Yet even as it snarled, Turkey agreed to host an early radar system on the Iranian border. This is not just a meaty bone to distract Washington but “re-securitizes” (or in lay terms “no longer ignores”) Tehran’s nuclear threat. As such, it is another U-turn in the government’s “zero problems” policy.

And however terse Turkish relations with the Netanyahu government, they cannot be worse than those with Bashar al-Assad’s in Damascus, where Ankara is openly calling for a regime change.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS that Turkey and Israel are about to relive the bleak 1980s when relations were at a similar low. Then Ankara, which was under martial law, felt isolated and tried to cultivate approval in the Arab world by downgrading relations with Israel. Now the suspicion is that Ankara is trying to curry favor among the emerging actors of the Arab spring by trying to further isolate Israel.

And while Turkish public opinion clearly backs this stance, there is also an undertow of concern that Ankara not be taken in by its own propaganda. There is some questioning about whether it is truly in Turkey’s strategic interest to break the blockade of Gaza. Turkey should not fall into the Israeli-laid trap of projecting hard power, writes Abdullah Bozkurt, Ankara bureau chief of the normally pro-government “Today’s Zaman.” “That is why I am critical of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approach in the simmering conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean either over gas exploration talks or the Gaza blockade,” he adds.

Columnists more normally critical of the government note with pious alarm that Turkey has had to shred its “zero problems” policy.

Certainly the feeling in Turkey is that Israel is in a state of denial and that it is trying to hold back the tide of political changes in MENA and the Middle East. More to the point, commentators are concerned that Israel has misunderstood changes within Turkey itself, underestimating the skill of the current government and the popular support it enjoys, as well as its genuine desire to democratize. Israel “hoped to maintain the ‘old Turkey,’ a solely military actor, with which they traded arms and enjoyed intelligence cooperation,” writes Yavuz Baydar also in “Today’s Zaman.”

Perhaps the greatest danger in the aftermath of Mavi Marmara is not a drift into irreconcilable conflict, but that Turkey has lost respect for Israel’s ability to read events.

Erdogan’s depiction of Israel as a “spoiled child,” pampered by misplaced US and Western European sympathy, is very different from the image of a David defying the odds to battle Goliath.

Turkey is not impressed by an Israel prepared to fight to the bitter end. Instead, it is exasperated by a government that doesn’t have the sense to issue a simple apology.

The new conventional wisdom is that this will not be enough and that there will have to be a change of government in either Turkey or Israel for relations to improve.

That same wisdom suggests the AK party is not going anywhere soon.

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