Europa Europa: Turkish Delight
Sep 26, 2011 | Douglas Davis
It is hard to remain unmoved by acts of blatant cynicism. Not those small, nasty gestures of crass stupidity that seek to advance a particular vested interest, but grand acts of faux-statecraft that leave the observer unsure whether to laugh or cry. Last month’s antics of Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offered a textbook example.
After expelling the Israeli Ambassador from Ankara, severing military ties and ending its strategic co-operation with Jerusalem, Turkey’s (non-Arab) Prime Minister flew to a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo. There he presented not only his shiny new credentials, but also himself as the “cheerleader-in-chief” of the Palestinians in the run-up to the UN debate on Palestine.
“We must work hand-in-hand with our Palestinian brothers,” Erdogan lectured his fellow Middle East leaders. “It is time to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations.” International recognition of a Palestinian state was now an obligation, not an option.
Erdogan also offered support and comfort for the “Arab Spring” movement: “Freedom and democracy and human rights must be a united slogan for the future of our people,” he said. “The legitimate demands of the people cannot be repressed with force and in blood.”
Some Arab leaders, not least the Jordanian royal family, who opposed the Palestinian move at the UN, and others, not least the Saudi royal family, who oppose the “Arab Spring”, must have quietly choked on their bottled water. Whatever the reason, Erdogan’s scheduled appearance before protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was mysteriously cancelled.
Naturally, Erdogan’s new-found solidarity with the Palestinians was linked to a verbal attack on Israel. He accused his erstwhile ally of sponsoring “state terrorism” and described the deaths of nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara, which participated in a flotilla that sought to break the blockade of Gaza in May 2010, as a “bloody massacre”. It was “grounds for war,” he intoned, “but, befitting Turkey’s greatness, we have decided to act with patience.”
Israel said it regretted the incident, but it refused to apologise for the actions of its soldiers in defending their lives. Erdogan last month dismissed a UN report into the incident, which upheld the legality of Israel’s blockade. “It means nothing to us,” he said.
Perhaps not, but he might find it difficult to explain why powerful figures in his government support the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a supposed Islamic charity, which bought the 15-year-old ferry for over US$1 million when they found they were unable to charter a vessel. In the event, the IHH was given the Parliamentary Award of Honour, one of Turkey’s highest honours and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said he saluted and congratulated the organisation.
Erdogan might also find that his belligerent new tone does not play well in Brussels, where he is negotiating Turkey’s entry into the European Union.
Elmar Brok, the foreign policy spokesman for the bloc of conservative Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, said he was sceptical of Turkey’s ability to transform itself into a regional power with a status similar to “earlier with the Ottoman Empire.” And he was critical of Erdogan “using the conflict with Israel in order to gain credibility in the region”. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the right-of-centre Free Democrats in the European Parliament, warned that Erdogan’s stridently anti-Israel rhetoric “isn’t making any friends in Europe.”
Why has Erdogan, whose country is a member of NATO and currently seeking entry to the European Union, made such a dramatic volte-face?
One reason may be that the Turkish economy, running a deficit approaching 10% of GDP (similar to that of Greece), could be about to implode, while anti-Israel sentiment taps neatly into the popular domestic mood. Friendship with Israel was always limited to Turkey’s secular elites, and Erdogan senses fertile soil for his brand of demagoguery in a society that has strongly negative attitudes to Israel (77%, according to a BBC World Service poll last year).
Another is that he has ambitions to restore the influence – if not the power – of the old Ottoman Empire, with himself as grand vizier. In other words, he is seizing the moment of maximum political, social and economic dislocation in the region to attempt to gain hegemony of the Arab world. Championing the Palestinian cause and leading the attack on Israel are prerequisites. The nuclear-hungry Islamist Shi’ite rulers of Iran are unlikely to be amused.
Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil, writing sardonically in Turkey’s influential daily Hurriyet following Erdogan’s barnstorming Cairo visit, addressed an Egyptian audience: “We are brothers! Our prime minister is your prime minister. So, please do not hesitate to borrow him – and please do not feel obliged to return him any time soon. After all, Muslims are never greedy and know well to share their jewels.”
It would be comforting to believe that political leaders in the Middle East, like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, actually meant what they said, even if the message was hateful. As it is, the mood of reform has not apparently affected the cynically expedient rhetoric of the region’s political class, peddling populist conspiratorial myths about Israel and the Palestinians.