Bernard Lewis, one of the world’s greatest experts on the Islamic world, told me a few years ago that the emerging younger Iranian generation and the alienated middle class would bring about regime change. However, he also predicted that Turkey would evolve into an aggressive Islamist dictatorship and could become the greatest threat to Israel.
Alas, his prediction about Turkey is being realized.
When twelve years ago, Recep Erdogan assumed the reins of leadership in Turkey, many expressed concern that beneath the veneer of moderation and commitment to a fusion of moderate Islam and democracy, the real Erdogan was a fanatical Muslim whose objective was to transform Turkey into an authoritarian Islamic state. They have been vindicated.
The military, which controlled the nation since Kemal Ataturk created a secular Turkish Republic in 1923, undoubtedly displayed autocratic tendencies in the course of its relentless determination to suppress Moslem extremism. Yet in terms of freedom of speech and democratic process, the situation today is significantly worse than before Erdogan.
Erdogan imprisoned thousands of Turkish citizens on spurious grounds without adequate trials; one in four former Turkish generals is currently languishing in prison; journalists, nonconforming academics and politicians have been summarily arrested; dissenting newspapers were closed down.
To some extent, leaders can be judged by their associates. Erdogan proudly accepted a “human rights award” from the late Libyan tyrant Moammar al Gadhafi and welcomed as his guest Omar al Bashir, the genocidal leader of Sudan, a certified war criminal responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.
Erdogan denies that Hamas is a terrorist organization, referring to its adherents as heroic liberation fighters and treating visiting Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh virtually like a head of state. Last month he invited the other Hamas leader, Khalid Mishaal, as his personal guest of honor at a state Iftar dinner to mark the end of Ramadan.
Erdogan also expanded Turkish diplomatic ties to the most radical Muslim terrorist regimes and organizations, including until recently the Syrians and the Iranian ayatollahs who he continues to insist are entitled to become a nuclear power. Now having parted ways with Assad, he has closely allied himself with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Moslem Brotherhood
Clearly his objective is to emerge as the popular leader of a neo-Ottoman Sunni Muslim arc.
To promote this objective, he has consciously exploited popular hatred of Israel as a vehicle by which to gain widespread support from the Arab masses. To this end, he has transformed Turkey’s former close alliance with Israel into one of aggressive confrontation and demonization, emerging as one of the leading Arab states directing hostility against the Jewish state.
The first public display of this behavior was his bitter and contrived confrontation of President Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009. Millions of television viewers saw him excoriating Peres over alleged Israeli war crimes and then dramatically storming out of the conference.
The deterioration in Turkish-Israel relations climaxed in 2010 when nine members of the IHH, a Turkish government sanctioned jihadist terrorist group, were killed on board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish boat in the Gaza “peace” flotilla, after violently attacking the IDF boarding party with metal bars, clubs and knives.
An independent Israeli commission of inquiry vindicated the IDF actions as self-defense. A separate UN commission ruled that whilst there may have been excessive violence, the Israeli action was entirely consistent with international law.
However Erdogan exploited this incident to intensify the confrontation with Israel. He demanded that the Israeli government apologize, pay restitution to families and unconditionally lift the blockade from Gaza.
Seeking to ease tensions, the Israelis expressed regret at the loss of lives and, without accepting blame, sought to reach an accommodation including a rumored offer to pay $6 million to families of the victims. But it soon became clear that Erdogan was seeking confrontation rather than compromise.
The Turkish government downgraded its diplomatic representation and intensified its global campaign to demonize Israel, seeking to have it barred from participating at all international gatherings.
Last month, on the second anniversary of the flotilla, the Turkish High Court issued indictments against Israeli military officers for their alleged involvement in the incident, pronouncing life sentences on the former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and other military leaders.
Campaigns against Israel were accompanied by intensification of anti-Semitic propaganda in the government-controlled media which included ghoulish television dramas (Valley of the Wolves) portraying Israelis as dealers in body parts, murderers of innocent children and other foul criminal activity. Not surprisingly, Turkish opinion polls reflect a 76% negative attitude towards Jews.
Erdogan has been especially viral in his denunciation of Israeli targeted assassinations of terrorists. Yet when a number of Syrian shells errantly crossed his border he had no hesitation in launching a brutal military attack, in stark contrast to Israel’s reluctance to maximize its deterrent capabilities in response to missiles continuously being launched against Israeli civilians from Gaza.
Nor does Erdogan display any scruples in employing the fiercest means to suppress protests or efforts by the Kurdish minority to achieve greater autonomy or independence.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of this confrontation is that despite his concerted campaign to delegitimize Israel, Erdogan has successfully forged a close alliance with President Obama who describes him as “an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues”. Erdogan reciprocates, stating “from the moment Barack became president, we upgraded the status of our relations from a strategic partnership to a model partnership, on which he also placed a lot of importance”.
Indeed, following pressure from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Obama agreed to bar Israel, a NATO partner country and member of NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue, from participating at a NATO summit which took place in Chicago. Turkey also demanded that NATO intelligence information be denied to Israel.
Likewise, Turkey succeeded in excluding Israel from a special meeting of the World Economic Forum. More outrageously, Obama caved in to Turkey’s demand that Israel – the Western country which has suffered more terrorism than any other – be barred from a global forum on counterterrorism.
Israel can do little to lessen the tension. Those who suggest that by prostrating and groveling towards Turkey, Israel would overcome this enmity are naïve and misguided. In the context of an aggressive Islamist government such behavior conveys weakness and surrender and would only further embolden Erdogan into making even greater demands. If we cannot generate friendship it is far better that we command respect.
However the Turks would hesitate to demonize and delegitimize us if they believed that they would be penalized. We could surely expect our principal ally, the United States, to stand firm and not kowtow to Turkish efforts to isolate or demean us.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom