Monday, March 4, 2013

Erdoğan is in trouble again

by Eyal Zisser

After a several-week long hiatus, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again nabbed headlines in Israel, this time by making a false and outrageous claim that Zionism, like anti-Semitism and fascism, is a form of racism that should be internationally combated. 

One could dismiss his most recent comments, much like his previous remarks, as yet another irrepressible outburst by a demagogue who can't seem to control his mouth, and who is willing to destroy his country's relations with Israel and with other nations with his impulsivity. All this just to gain cheap popularity among his supporters, or to exact retribution for what he perceives to be a personal Israeli insult against him.

It is possible, however, that there is a certain logic to his madness. Perhaps the irritating comments coming out of Ankara represent a much deeper process currently underway in Turkey, which also affects the country's relations with Israel. 

This year will mark a decade since Erdoğan's party rose to power. He is likely very proud of what he has accomplished during this time. After all, Erdoğan's clique managed to tighten its grip on state institutions and Turkish society and to successfully quash the last pockets of opposition, especially within the military and the old elites. If Erdoğan indeed wants to obliterate the secular legacy of Kamal Attaturk, who founded the modern Turkish republic, that goal is now within his reach. 

Still, there are many dark clouds hanging over Erdoğan's successes. When he ascended to power he envisaged a state of "zero problems" that would eventually achieve peaceful relations and foster dialogue with all of Turkey's neighbors. A decade later, though, Turkey has zero friends and is facing a growing number of problems.

Tragedy unfolded from the south, from Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, once the Turkish prime minister's close ally and intimate friend, has become Erdoğan's number one enemy. The Turkish prime minister's harsh rhetoric against Israel doesn't even compare to his treatment of the Syrian president, whom he recently dubbed the angel of death, Satan, a mass murderer and more. 

The Syrian civil war has presented Erdoğan with quite the imbroglio. Under the shadow of war, the Syrian Kurds have constituted a semi-autonomous region in coordination with their brethren in Iraq. This development could affect the Kurds living in Turkey, who make up to 30 percent of the population (and with whom Turkey has fought a decades-long armed conflict that has resulted in thousands of casualties). Erdoğan, it turns out, is not as all-powerful as he pretends to be, or wants to believe. 

But the worse Erdoğan's frustration and helplessness become, so his declarations become more caustic, sometimes directed at the U.S., mostly directed at Syria, and at times also at Israel. 

Erdoğan and Turkey are not synonymous. Many Turks still understand the need to maintain economic and political ties with Israel. Even today, Israeli-Turkish trade is thriving. In fact the media recently reported that Israel and Turkish defense industries have resumed doing business. 

What we need now is a sober approach to Israeli-Turkish relations. From time to time, Erdoğan must be reminded that the Ottoman Empire is over — Not because Israel wants to turn Turkey into its enemy. The relationship between the two countries can, and should be restored, despite Erdoğan's position. It is important to remember, though, that the good old days of friendship between Israel and Turkey have long gone, and will never return. 

The new Turkey wants to be a leader in the Arab and Islamic world. Turkey sees its political and economic interests in that sphere, and therefore, an alliance with Israel would not advance Turkey's goals. On the contrary: Erdoğan and his cohorts believe that anti-Israel rhetoric actually bolsters their Middle Eastern status. Insults and verbal blows alongside dialogue and cooperation over mutual interests define their game. Even after Erdoğan is gone, Turkey will probably still sing the same tune, perhaps just in a different key.

Eyal Zisser


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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