Middle East

Erdogan’s Israel rhetoric ‘a ploy to win votes’

Turkish Prime Minister and Presidential Candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during AK Party group meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) on July 22, 2014 in Ankara, Turkey. (Halil Sagirkaya - Anadolu Agency)

ISTANBUL: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sacrificed any possibility of Turkey mediating in Gaza in favor of wooing voters ahead of presidential polls with the toughest-ever anti-Israeli rhetoric from a Turkish leader.

Before the rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) over a decade ago, NATO member Turkey was Israel’s key ally in the Islamic world, a policy enthusiastically cheered by the United States.

Erdogan has long presented himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause and leader of the entire Sunni world. But his criticism of Israel’s assault on Gaza has reached new heights, with comments comparing Israel’s strategy in Gaza to the actions of Nazi Germany.

Erdogan has accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza and has also compared the mentality of some elements in Israeli society to Adolf Hitler.

Turkey’s usually mildly spoken Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also launched his own incendiary attack against Israel over the weekend, saying Turkey had no reason to be impartial.

Cengiz Aktar, professor of political science at the Istanbul Policy Center, echoed Davutoglu’s stance, saying: “Turkey is by no means impartial and can have no supporting role in the mediation efforts.”

Erdogan, who is now in the throes of campaigning for presidential elections on Aug. 10 that he is widely expected to win, has whipped up the crowds at mass rallies with his anti-Israeli rhetoric.

With Turkish public opinion overwhelmingly hostile to Israel’s policies, his language can only help him at the polls.

“This scores good electoral points for him. A pro-Israeli or pro-Jewish approach would never benefit a politician who still tries to portray himself as the leader of the Sunni world,” Aktar said.

In the aftermath of angry pro-Palestinian protests in Ankara where Turkish protesters climbed onto the walls of the Israeli envoy’s residence, Israel pulled most of its staff from the country and denounced Turkey’s failure to protect its missions.

“With the Turkish leadership’s anti-Israel rhetoric, Turkey has now lost nearly all of its ability to have political influence in Israel,” said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group.

Erdogan also appears happy to pick a fight with Washington, with the U.S. State Department branding his comments on Israel “offensive and wrong,” but the prime minister hit back by saying the United States needed to engage in “self-criticism.”

The nominee for the new U.S. ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, acknowledged that Turkey was “drifting” toward authoritarianism under Erdogan.

Ties with not only Egypt but also Saudi Arabia have frayed after the Riyadh-backed coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood presidency in Cairo.

Erdogan has himself made clear that the process of normalization of relations between Turkey and Israel – downgraded after the deadly storming by Israeli commandos of a Turkish activist ship off Gaza in 2010 – is now at an end.

Yet both Turkey and Israel have a mutual interest in keeping relations, and some analysts speculate that cooperation between security services is continuing behind closed doors.

Trade is far from insignificant – the total trade volume between the two countries rose to $5 billion in 2013, compared with $3.4 billion in 2008.

“I still believe that efforts are underway to normalize the relations. They can gain momentum as early as after the elections,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2014, on page 9.




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