Erdogan leverages Israel

Yoav Karny

The rapprochement-non-rapprochement between Israel and Turkey can best be understood in the context of the Turkish prime minister's domestic agenda.

Anyone who hasn't heard the tones of the placatory conversation between Benjamin Netanyahu and Tayyip Erdogan doesn't know what the sound of the gritting of teeth is.

Six years after storming out of a debate with President Shimon Peres at Davos, three years after divorcing Israel to the acclaim of the Arab world, two months after excoriating Zionism as a crime against humanity, Tayyip Erdogan is not a friend, not an ally, and not a polite neighbor. At best, he is a temporary partner for temporary deals. To apologize to him? The prime minister can be forgiven if he had to sneak off to a side room first, to get over the nausea.

And Tayyip Erdogan? He is not a severe critic of Israel. His actions in the past few years exclude him from that generous category. He has publicly revealed what ought to have been abundantly clear a decade ago: he hates Israel, is hostile to its very existence, and longs to do something to speed up the end of that existence. This monoglot with the narrow horizons of a graduate of the literature of the Muslim Brotherhood (which furnished the intellectual world of the Islamists in Turkey long before he came to power) has never been a friend. He just bit his lip for a few years, before giving vent to his passions.

Turkey's budding democracy has for some time been reminiscent of that of Venezuela, and it even has marks of Putinism. The personality cult of the leader is of grotesque, even tragic, dimensions. Spontaneous street signs in Turkish towns and cities, superbly designed, congratulated Erdogan on Israel's humiliation. "Thank you for the pride you have instilled in us", these spontaneous posters said.

"As in the past"

The winds of reconciliation did not blow long in Ankara. Within 48 hours, Erdogan began his famous dance of one step forwards and two steps back. He will shortly visit Gaza, to inspect with his own eyes how Israel is abiding by the terms of the reconciliation. Turkish naval ships will continue to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean, "to ensure freedom of navigation". The effort to grant international legitimacy to Hamas will also continue.

It is interesting that Turkey's pro-Islamist and anti-Israeli newspaper Zaman actually took the rapprochement seriously. Its commentators stressed the "breakthrough". Columnist Lale Kemal wrote that "mending ties with Israel will inevitably put Ankara in a stronger position to address regional threats". She quotes a declaration from Erdogan that "We are entering a new period in both Turkey and the region. We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position where it will again have a say, have initiative and power, as it did in the past."

Note the words "as it did in the past". Which past exactly? Not the recent past. In the past ninety years, Turkey has gone out of its way not to be part of "the region". There is no escaping the presumption that Erdogan is nostalgic for the seventeenth century, the last phase of the golden age of the Ottomans.

Dinner with the princes

The claim that Erdogan is developing "neo-Ottomanism" has become widespread in recent years. Turkey rejects this characterization. Its foreign minister, Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, an intellectual who was a university professor before he entered politics, saw a need to deny it explicitly. "The Turkish republic is a modern nation state, and it has relations of equality with the countries of the region", he said in November 2009.

Of course, the Turks do not wish to renew the Ottoman format, but only to adapt it to present circumstances. They want a leading role in the politics of the Middle East. The rest don't have to be Ottoman subjects. It's enough that they should be vassals, or neo-vassals, or planets in a Turkish solar system.

They say of Davutoğlu that his main task is putting back together the broken pieces that Prime Minister Erdogan leaves behind him time after time. Erdogan's impulsivity wins him the affection of the Turkish masses, but makes it a little hard for him to endear himself with foreigners. When Erdogan flares up, Davutoğlu, together with President Abdullah Gül, has to cool things down. Perhaps that is what they did this time around as well, after their prime minister's near hysterical outburst against "criminal Zionism".

But Davutoğlu himself finds it difficult to shake off the suspicion that he is a herald of neo-Ottomanism. Three weeks ago, he invited the descendants of the last of the Ottoman dynasty to a festive dinner at the Turkish embassy in London. Among the guests was the grandson of the last Caliph, whom Kemal Ataturk deposed in March 1924.

What was the point of that? A government that is seriously trying to convince its neighbors that it has no interest in reviving the Ottoman past does not have to mark the anniversary of the toppling of the house of Ottoman with a banquet. This was not improvisation. It was a message. The only question is, to whom was it addressed? Most probably it was first and foremost for domestic consumption.

A Star of David on the top hat

In this sense, just about everything that Tayyip Erdogan does these days is meant to serve a domestic agenda. He is on the brink of a historic attempt to mold Turkey in his political image. He wants to change its constitution, and return to the presidential system that existed there until 1950. Of course, he wants to be the president, and if he is elected twice (who will be able to stop him?) he will extend his rule until 2024. Symbolically enough, 2023 will see the centenary of the republic the secularism of which Erdogan is eroding little by little. The republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal, known as "Atatürk", will rightly turn in his grave.

Atatürk was the sworn enemy of everything that Erdogan and his people are trying to do. Since he was the man who saved Turkey from foreign conquest, it is impossible to disown him completely, or overnight. But what remains of the "Kemalist" philosophy sticks in the throats of the neo-Islamists.

What more dramatic signal of the de-Kemalization of Turkey could there be than to elevate the descendants of the man whom Atatürk humiliated. It should be recalled that the removal of the last Caliph was not just an important internal event. At the time of his overthrow, the last of the Ottomans was in any case no longer Sultan. He had been deposed three years earlier. But he continued to be "Caliph of all the believers", the symbolic leader of Islam, the heir of the heirs of the prophet. This was therefore a shattering event for all Muslims wherever they were, giving Atatürk the status of an enemy of the faith, the factotum of the Western powers, and of course the lackey of the Jews (to this day he appears in Muslim Brotherhood caricatures with a Star of David on his top hat).

Could it be that Erdogan has thoughts of reviving the Caliphate? That's hard to believe. Even in his hysterical repertoire, an act like that would exceed all rational bounds. But the secular Turkish republic is destined to become much less secular, much less Turkish, much less republican.

Not "mountain Turks"

Alongside the huge challenge of imposing a presidential constitution (66% opposed it in a public opinion survey in February), is an even greater challenge: the attempt to make peace once and for all with the Kurds. In its first 50 years, Turkey classed them as "mountain Turks". (There is nothing Turkish about the Kurds. If anything, they are ethnically related to the Persians.) Their language, from the Iranian family, was declared a "Turkish dialect". Their national dress was banned. Any hint of ethnic individuality was suppressed with an iron fist.

The republicans believed, to a large extent rightly, that Kurdish nationalism endangered the existence of Turkey in its present borders. They felt threatened by schemes of the Western powers after the First World War to form states for the Armenians and the Kurds in East Anatolia. Since the Italians, the French and the Greeks were about to get almost all the rest, Turkey would have become the municipality of Istanbul, if that.

The conflict with the Kurds developed into actual war from the 1970s onwards. A widely accepted estimate puts the number of victims at 40,000. It wrecked Turkey's order of priorities and justified what the Turks call "the shadow state' (literally "the deep state"), in which the tone was set by the highly secular army and security services.

A historic peace with the Kurds will necessarily involve a weakening of the stress on the Turkish nation. In Atatürk's vision, every Muslim on Turkish soil was Turkish. The Ottoman state was never "Turkish". On the contrary, in its glory days "Turkish" was a term of disdain. Less Turkish does not mean Ottoman, but we must apologize to Professor Davutoğlu if it sounds a little "neo-Ottoman" to us.

Erdogan's phenomenal success in wresting Turkey from the grasp of the "deep state" and gathering it into his arms was an outcome of political acrobatics. But as the successes grew, the nuances diminished. The acrobatics were replaced by a thoroughly Turkish machismo. This is where the danger begins to arise that Erdogan will stretch the rope a little too tightly, perhaps to the point of tearing it.

The significance of the rapprochement-non-rapprochement with Israel can perhaps be understood in this context: Erdogan's periodic need to take a step back before taking two steps forward. Perhaps there will be no Caliph in Istanbul, and no Sultan either, but Turkey's future looks full of Erdogan.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on March 28, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

Twitter Facebook Linkedin RSS Newsletters גלובס Israel Business Conference 2018