Turkey Takes Sides

Criticism of Israel is the hallmark of Prime Minister Erdogan's new Middle East policy -- but not all Turks are on board.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit showed once again that he and the United States are simply not seeing eye to eye. The White House statement following Erdogan’s Tuesday meeting with President Barack Obama stated that the two leaders "affirmed the strategic partnership between their countries" and "discussed their joint interest in achieving the nonproliferation goals of the Summit," including halting Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. But this was purely rhetoric: In fact, the two countries are agreeing on little these days.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has developed into the primary sticking point between the longtime allies. The White House tackles the Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear dilemma as parallel but separate issues. Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, Turkey considers the two issues inseparable. For Erdogan, what happens in Gaza has a direct connection with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And his deep emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause is preventing Turkey from playing a constructive role in the conflict’s resolution.

For the past several years, Ankara has proudly touted its position as a valuable mediator in the Middle East. However, it surrendered its role as a voice of reason when Erdogan became obsessed with criticizing Israel at every turn. Erdogan’s comments on Middle East foreign policy, from his January 2009 outburst at Davos to his recent remarks at the nuclear summit, almost inevitably end with a verbal assault on Israel’s transgressions. Some of those rebukes are surely earned, but by constantly beating the same horse, Erdogan has lost nuance in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

As a Turk, I don’t wish to invite accusations of faithlessness or disloyalty from my fellow countrymen. I am the daughter of Turkish parents who blessed our home with prayer five times a day and went on hajj two decades ago. I was raised as a Muslim. Yet I believe the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s recent statement, which claimed Erdogan was giving the impression that he "is seeking to integrate with the Muslim world at Israel’s expense," was precisely correct. 

Many of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in Damascus in January 2009 to protest the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip carried banners praising Erdogan for supporting the Palestinian cause. However, as Erdogan’s populist rhetoric wins over the Arab street, Turkey’s relationships with moderate Arab leaders and Israel have faltered. Kadri Gursel, one of Turkey’s leading foreign policy columnists, has warned that the country’s efforts to integrate with the West would suffer if Erdogan’s ambition "is to be the Hugo Chavez of the Middle East." Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for his part, compared Erdogan not only to the Venezuelan president but to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. 

The transformation of Turkey’s foreign alliances has been accompanied by a narrowing of domestic freedoms. It is increasingly difficult to speak out against the AKP. When I was growing up in Ankara I never thought that one day my school friends and I would complain that we felt like outsiders in our own homeland. We’re gradually becoming a minority — but the new landscape is as yet unclear.

"Turkey is not the issue, but Erdogan is," stated Lieberman. I disagree. Turks may not all hold the same opinions, but their elected prime minister does have a right to speak on their behalf. That is what makes Erdogan’s statements so disturbing. The prime minister takes great pride in speaking bluntly against Israeli, European, and even U.S. leaders. But I don’t remember him speaking as plainly to any Muslim leader.

I don’t think anyone felt comfortable watching the Palestinians suffer during Operation Cast Lead. But Hamas shares significant responsibility for what happened. If the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist Kurdish terrorist organization, were to attack Turkey with the rockets used by Hamas, human rights concerns would not be the first priority of the Turks or the Turkish military. This is why some Turks are deeply troubled by the fact that, while Erdogan criticizes Israel for using disproportionate force, he does not remind his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah that they, too, have responsibilities.

When Erdogan is not harping on Israel’s Gaza offensive, he is criticizing its nuclear capability. These attacks are surely one of the reasons why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently decided not to attend the nuclear summit in Washington. Erdogan called on the international community to press Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and criticized the United States and its allies for advancing a double standard toward Iran and Israel. "It is important that we try to take steps to overcome those difficulties, so we can strengthen peace in the Middle East," he said at the summit.

In principle, Erdogan shares Obama’s ideal of a world without nuclear weapons. However, the best way to champion this cause is to lead by example — and on this front, the Turkish prime minister has done very little. The United States hosts approximately 90 warheads in Turkey, at the Incirlik Air Base. So far, Erdogan has done nothing to ensure their departure from Turkish soil. "It costs a lot of money to keep them there," Henri Barkey, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. "If Turkey wants them to be taken away, the U.S. will do it immediately. But if [the United States] considers doing it and Turkey says ‘no,’ it won’t remove those nuclear warheads."

In the end, all issues seem to come back to Erdogan’s obsession with Israel. It is easy to use Israel as a scapegoat, as Erdogan attempts to redefine Turkish identity and its national security interests. Erdogan’s constant rhetorical assaults on Israel do have a profound effect on Turkish public opinion, slowly convincing Turks that it is Israel, not a nuclear Iran, that is the primary threat to peace.

The prime minister argues that he is not shifting the country from West to East — he is still a vocal advocate of Turkey’s EU accession, for example. However, he knows well that his popularity on the Arab street is not due to the Arab world’s appreciation for Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but because he is taking their side against Israel and its Western allies.

As a Turk, I have watched these developments with growing concern. Turkey’s leadership cannot help advance peace and stability if it chooses to see Israel as an enemy. Turkey is a vital balancer in the region, and it can and should remain as the go-between between Israel, the Arab world, and the West.

Unfortunately, Erdogan’s leadership has created a dangerous vacuum in the Middle East. Without Turkish leadership, the international community will be severely hampered in its efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This will shift the regional balance of power and truly endanger Turkey’s security. When this day comes, Erdogan might still try to blame Israel and the United States — but the truth is that the only person he will have to blame is himself.

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