Erdogan is not the bogeyman

June 19, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Public opinion is the main driver in Turkish policy on Israel-Palestine. Crises with Israel have always followed any Turkish perception that injustice is being done to the Palestinians.

By Hugh Pope

Myth-makers have been busily at work since the May 31 Israeli commando assault on the civilian Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on its way to try to break the Gaza blockade.

Turkish versions of events have fabulous elements, to be sure. Few in Turkey seem to have realized the risks of putting political activists up against a security-obsessed Israel. And some Turks still believe that Ankara’s “zero-problem” foreign policy based on peace in the neighborhood can survive the collapse in relations with Israel, even though Turkey can no longer claim to be the only Middle East country with good ties to every regional party.

However, these misconceptions pale beside those of some Israeli commentators, who point to the Mavi Marmara as Exhibit A in a deep-laid plan by “Islamist” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to destroy a natural Turkish alliance with Israel, to seize leadership of the Muslim world, and to assert Turkish hegemony over former Ottoman domains in the Middle East – probably through the cat’s paw of aid organization IHH (Insani Yardim Vakfi ), branded as terrorists in cahoots with Al-Qaida. Whoa there! First of all, it was Israeli live fire that killed nine Turks on the high seas, with a 10th now dead in an Ankara hospital. Dozens more were injured. While the Turks would have been far wiser to employ purely passive resistance, it is clear that nobody on the Turkish side planned for bloodshed. For instance, Mavi Marmara organizers point out that no provision had been made for casualties.

The headquarters of IHH is in a leafy suburb of Istanbul, the neat street outside decked out with flags from all over the world. In his modern office upstairs, Middle East coordinator Ahmet Emin Dag tries to put IHH’s attempt to break the Gaza blockade in context. Of IHH’s annual aid budget of $50 million, he notes, $20 million goes to Palestinians. And of this, he says, half goes to Gaza, and half to the West Bank and Jerusalem. Yes, IHH supports Hamas, publishes texts attacking Zionism, and tries to embody the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of Turks for the Palestinians. But no, Dag says, IHH is not just about Israel/Palestine, and not just about Hamas.

How about IHH’s links to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party? Indeed, IHH shares the same conservative and religious base as the AK Party. But it is arguably closer to Erdogan’s more religious rivals, Saadet Party, and has links to groups on the nationalist right. Fethullah Gulen, the relatively progressive leader of a powerful informal religious movement in Turkey, in fact criticized the way IHH tried to break the Gaza blockade. A few days later a senior AK official publicly agreed with Gulen’s reproach and was loudly applauded by the party faithful. Erdogan’s government sympathized with attempts to break the Gaza blockade and allowed the ship to sail, but played no public part in its organization, screened the cargo and everyone who boarded it for weapons and made sure no politicians of any party or officials took part.

In short – with most of Turkey’s leaders out of the country and the foreign minister preparing to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu in the U.S. – nobody wanted or was expecting violence on May 31. But the critics insist: Erdogan was spoiling for a fight, ideologically committed to anti-Israel policies. But this too is wrong. Erdogan’s rhetoric may often be pugnacious and out of date. But his ideology is not devoted to Israel’s destruction. Just over two years ago he entertained Israel prime minister Ehud Olmert to a long dinner in his official Ankara residence. Naively perhaps, but certainly sincerely, Erdogan believed that he had brought Israel and Syria to the brink of face-to-face talks or even a peace deal. Yet just days later, and having given no warning, Olmert launched Israel’s winter 2009 assault on Gaza. This was the turning point, not the outburst against President Shimon Peres in Davos a few weeks later.

Erdogan’s policy in the Middle East is hardly “Islamist” either. Stability and prosperity through free travel, economic integration, and policy coordination looks more like the EU’s recipe for conflict resolution. Also, other beneficiaries of this policy have been Russia, Serbia and Greece. Turkey’s ties to Europe and the U.S. may have become less dominant, but that doesn’t mean Turkey has changed its fundamental direction. More than half of Turkey’s exports go to Europe, EU states account for 90 percent of foreign investment in Turkey, and more than four million Turks already live in Europe; in contrast, Middle East states take less than a quarter of Turkey’s exports, account for just 10 percent of its tourists and employ only 110,000 Turkish immigrant workers.

Instead of building myths and Islamist bogeymen, Israeli commentators should note that public opinion is the main driver in Turkish policy on Israel-Palestine. Crises with Israel have always followed any Turkish perception that injustice is being done to the Palestinians: whether during the Six-Day War in 1967, the formal declaration of a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 1980 or the occupation of West Bank towns in 2002. The golden era in Turkish-Israeli relations in the 1990s was exceptional and coincided exactly with the years of the Oslo peace process. When Israel is again perceived as seeking peace, it will most likely find Turkey rapidly ready to do business once more.

Hugh Pope is International Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus project director and the author of “Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.” This Sunday at 7 P.M., he will speak about Turkey-Israel relations, at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.