The fastest gun in the East

Erdogan’s obsession with Israel is visceral rather than rational

Ergodan (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Ironically, in late February, just as Israel- Turkey relations seemed to be taking a turn for the better, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly drew his gun and fired a verbal bullet straight between the eyes by comparing Zionism to Islamophobia, Fascism and anti-Semitism, all of which he defined as “crimes against humanity.”
It was a month that had begun with reports of a high-level Israeli delegation holding negotiations in Ankara on the export of Israeli gas to Turkey. This was, to say the least, surprising. Until recently Israel had been conducting a gas romance with Cyprus, a bitter foe of Turkey’s. The change in direction towards Ankara pointed to a significant new beginning.
At the same time, reports of a sale of Israeli defense equipment to the Turkish Air Force – in a deal to which the US is also party – were confirmed. This was also unexpected, given the fact that the acute tension between Israel and Turkey over the past few years had virtually paralyzed military ties.
Against this background, this latest example of Erdogan’s quickness on the verbal draw was perhaps the most unexpected of all his anti-Israel outbursts, of which he has a rich history. In his early years, he often referred to Israel as a “terrorist state” and as time went by he raised the rhetorical bar and the level of insult, once demonstratively storming out of a panel-discussion with President Shimon Peres and on another occasion calling for Israel’s expulsion from the UN during a visit to Turkey by UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon.
In most cases, Erdogan’s outbursts coincided with acute crises like Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008/January 2009, or the IDF’s forcible takeover of the “Mavi Marmara,” a Turkish vessel trying to run the naval blockade of Gaza, in May 2010. But on this occasion Erdogan fired from the hip at a time when the border with Gaza is relatively quiet and early signs of a positive change in ties between Jerusalem and Ankara were in the air.
So what is driving him? The most common explanation is that Erdogan is trying to score points in a bid to lead the Muslim world.
I disagree. Turkey is the most successful country in the Muslim world. It is a giant both economically and militarily. It has been stable politically for over a decade. It has an excellent education system, a modern industrial base and attracts around 30 million tourists a year. It also offers a way of combining Islam, modernity and democracy that could serve as a model for the revolutionaries of the “Arab Spring.” Given all of this, Turkey’s would-be rivals for leadership of the Middle East, Iran and Egypt, are not realistic candidates.
In other words, Erdogan does not need the outbursts against Israel to advance his standing in the Muslim world. Moreover, these diatribes tarnish his image in the West and could well put his many domestic achievements at risk.
So what is going on here? It seems to me that Erdogan’s obsession with Israel is visceral rather than rational. His concern for the Palestinian people (which grew exponentially with the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections in 2006) is genuine, but with it he started to develop a deep pathological hatred for Israel, which is now out of control. In his view, there is only one guilty party in the Israel-Arab conflict. He sees only black and white, no shades of gray.
What are the likely implications of his latest and most offensive calumny? Criticism of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is certainly legitimate and it wouldn’t do any harm if Israel paid attention to it from time to time. But in defining Zionism as a “crime against humanity,” Erdogan crossed a red line no Israeli government can ignore.
With this slander he has destroyed any hope of an Israeli apology for the “Mavi Marmara” and any chance of cooperation in the energy sphere, which is just as important for Turkey as it is for Israel. Now it is Israel that will be waiting for an apology, knowing that the chances of its coming are negligible.
Dr. Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, was Israel’s Chargé d’Affaires in Turkey in the 1980s and is the author of “Demo-Islam – Islamic Democracy in Turkey.”