Erdogan Needs A Spasm Of Lucidity: Surpassing The Founder Of The Republic
16 September 2014
By Alon Ben-Meir
The ascendancy of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the
presidency places Turkey on a trajectory that could
usher in a new era unlike any other since the founding
of the Turkish Republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Erdogan
was admired in and outside the country for his
remarkable socioeconomic achievements, yet at the same
time intensely criticized for his egocentricity, crude
prejudices, and a misguided foreign policy that may
now haunt him as President unless he changes course.
Although there is much to say about his good
intentions behind his adopted doctrine of ‘zero
problems with neighbors,' his grandiose notions about
Turkey's role as a global power and the ever-growing
pervasiveness of his political power base, the Islamic
AK Party, have backfired, leaving behind a messy trail
of foreign policy failures.
One of its casualties is Turkey's relations with
Israel. For decades, Turkey has maintained good
relations with Jerusalem (interestingly, Turkey was
the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, in
1949), albeit with some up and downs, reaching its
climax in the late 1990's.
During that period, the two countries became strategic
allies and entered into a host of joint ventures,
including military cooperation and sales, intelligence
sharing, energy, extensive trade, and tourism.
The first major breakdown of their bilateral relations
occurred in the wake of Israel's incursion into Gaza
in December 2008, which was further aggravated by the
Israeli commandos' interception of the Turkish vessel
Mavi Marmara in 2010. The ship was sailing to Gaza
carrying supplies of food, medicine, and building
materials with the intention of breaking the Israeli
blockade over the Strip.
Unfortunately, one Turkish-American and eight Turkish
citizens were inadvertently killed resulting from
"excessive and unreasonable" use of force, as was
determined by a UN commission that investigated the
Since then, Erdogan has never missed an opportunity to
criticize Israel, accusing it of gross human rights
violations and a host of other charges.
What followed was a series of events that gradually
chipped away at their bilateral relations to the
present status of mutual acrimony, accusations of
gross wrongdoings, and outright political hostility.
What has particularly soured relations is Israel's
initial refusal to meet Turkey's demand that Israel
apologize for the death of the Turkish citizens. When
Netanyahu finally conceded, Erdogan reneged on his
promise to restore full diplomatic relations with
I personally worked behind the scenes and arranged for
the initial high-level meeting between the two sides
to iron out the sticking problem of the apology. I was
directly told on several occasions by then-Foreign
Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (now the Prime Minster) that
"The moment Israel apologizes the bags of the next
ambassador are already packed, and he will be on his
way to Tel Aviv in the next flight."
Subsequently, other preconditions to the restoration
of full diplomatic relations were added, including
compensation and the lifting of the blockade over
Gaza. Most recently, Davutoglu stated that no
ambassador will be sent to Israel unless the blockade
is lifted, period.
Erdogan's condemnation of Israel reached its peak a
few weeks ago. He compared the death of more than
2,000 Palestinians, killed during the Israel-Hamas
war, to Hitler's genocide, which enraged Israelis and
prompted Netanyahu to further downgrade the Israeli
mission in Ankara to the lowest level.
It should be noted that while the US and the EU
consider Hamas a terrorist organization, Turkey, which
is a NATO member, openly supports Hamas and provides
economic aid to the organization to the tune of $300
million a year.
Recently, Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon
publicly accused Turkey of being a country that backs
terrorism. He stated that "The command center of Hamas'
overseas operation sits in Istanbul. Saleh al-Arouri
[a senior Hamas official] is the man sitting there."
Israel accuses al-Arouri of being the man who
orchestrated the abduction and killing of three
Israeli teenagers, which subsequently led to the
Many observers ascribe Erdogan's attitude toward
Israel to his utter devotion to Sunni Islam, his
support of Islamic extremism, and his tenacious
campaign to instill Islamic values and culture
throughout Turkey and other Muslim states.
Erdogan's ambition to assume the leadership of the
Islamic Sunni world and present Turkey as a model of
an Islamic democracy, especially in the wake of the
Arab Spring, was bluntly rejected by every Arab state
in the region.
Those who closely watch the Turkish domestic scene
plausibly argue that the rise of anti-Semitism is a
direct result of Erdogan's pronounced anti-Israeli
sentiment. His diatribes against Israel continue as he
recently characterized the Israelis as having "no
conscience, no honor, no pride."
In fact, during the recent NATO summit, President
Obama urged Erdogan to combat anti-Semitism in his
country as this growing phenomenon only further harms
relations between Turkey and Israel—the two most
powerful nations in the region, whose cooperation is
critical to regional stability.
That said, Erdogan's duplicity is put on full display
when it comes to growing the Turkish economy, which is
the central pillar that sustains his popular support.
While Turkey will likely cancel its energy deal with
Israel (the construction of a gas pipeline to Turkey)
because of intensifying political fissure, Erdogan
continues to expand trade with Israel, which has
reached a new record of five billion dollars this year
and is expected to go higher in 2015.
This sorry state of affairs between the two countries
further dims the prospect of improved relations from
which both countries can hugely benefit, which could
become even worse now that Erdogan has ascended to the
presidency, if he does not change course.
The US and the EU continue to cooperate with Turkey
out of strategic necessity. However, Turkey's
Islamization under Erdogan and his deliberate
compromising of Turkey's democratic principles by
jailing journalists without trial, suppressing
peaceful demonstrations and manipulating the justice
system all point to a dangerous slippery slope,
indicated by Turkey's Freedom House ranking of only
Erdogan must realize that his policy of ‘zero problems
with neighbors' has been a dismal failure, his
domestic policy that spreads fear rather than freedom
will come back to haunt him, and his blind support of
extremist groups such as Hamas will catch up with him.
His treatment of Israel only exemplifies his poor
judgment and the dangerous path he is treading.
It is clear that Erdogan wants to be remembered as the
new Ataturk (the father of the Turks), surpassing the
founder of the republic. He certainly would do
anything in his power to preside as President over the
hundredth anniversary of the Republic in 2023.
Erdogan may dream about that moment of glory, but he
will not get there unless he is struck by a spasm of
lucidity and realizes that should this trend continue
under his presidency, it will eventually rob Turkey of
its potential to become a significant global power,
which Erdogan so badly aspires to.