Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric fuels his popularity in the Arab world as he seeks to become a leader in the region. He’s increasingly antagonizing the West as he takes on that role.
Erdogan rejects Israel’s statements that its strikes on Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip were in self-defense. He accused the Jewish state of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” in a speech to parliament yesterday. His remarks came a day after U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, responding to the premier’s comment that Israel is a “terrorist state,” said Turkey’s verbal attacks were “not helpful.”
Speaking at the airport today before a flight to Pakistan, Erdogan said Turkey and Qatar are involved in Egyptian-led efforts for a cease-fire. He added that Turkey, NATO’s biggest Muslim member, wouldn’t speak with Israeli counterparts unless there was an “extraordinary situation.”
“He aspires to be more of a regional leader than he is,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group. Erdogan “feels that he’s earned the right to tell people what he feels,” Alterman said. “That doesn’t mean that Turkish foreign policy is served by leading an effort to delegitimize Israel in the international community.”
Erdogan, 58, also is operating in an increasingly polarized Muslim world. Iran opposes his calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and Iraq is displeased with Erdogan’s sheltering of fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.
Erdogan’s government has cultivated diplomatic relations with Hamas, whose exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, attended a convention for the Turkish ruling party on Sept. 30 in Ankara. Mashaal received a standing ovation after being introduced by Erdogan as the audience chanted “damn Israel!”
The U.S., the European Union and Israel classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Turkey’s ties with Israel, once a close military ally, have been severely strained since nine Turks were killed in an Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship in 2010. Turkey and Israel mutually downgraded diplomatic ties to the level of charge d’affaires in September 2011 after Turkey asked top Israeli diplomats to leave and withdrew its ambassador over Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killings on the ship.
Earlier this month, Turkey put four former Israeli officers, including ex-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, on trial in absentia for the killings.
The two countries have kept business channels open during their dispute, allowing trade to flourish. It reached a record $4.4 billion last year, up from $2.6 billion in 2009, and was about $3 billion in the first nine months of 2012, according to official Turkish data.
Tourism has slumped as Israelis shun Turkey, once a favorite destination. The number of visitors dropped to 80,000 last year from about 500,000 a year before 2009, according to the Israeli Embassy in Ankara.
Erdogan’s Turkey leads the world in jailing reporters and is engaged in “one of the biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in an Oct. 22 report. There were 76 journalists imprisoned in Turkey as of Aug. 1, at least 61 of whom were being held because of their work, CPJ said in the 53-page report. That’s the highest figure globally in the past 10 years, it said.
In criticizing Israel, Erdogan is “telling the truth,” Nusret Bayraktar, a lawmaker from Erdogan’s party, said by telephone today.
“Everyone knows that Turkey is an important country with a say in this region,” Bayraktar said. It is “saying the unspeakable” and “standing up against the legitimization of injustice,” he said.
Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric hasn’t hurt Turkish stock prices, with the ISE National 100 Index rising 45 percent this year in dollar terms. The index reached an all-time high on Nov. 5, the same day its credit rating was upgraded by Fitch Ratings, giving the $800 billion economy its first investment grade credentials since 1994. Yields on the benchmark two-year bonds dropped yesterday to a record low of 6.23 percent, extending this year’s decline to 478 basis points, the biggest drop in the emerging markets.
The cost to insure Turkish debt against default is at 145 basis points, compared with 149 for Russian credit-default swaps and 156 for Israel. Russia is rated three levels above Turkey at Moody’s Investors Service and Israel is rated six levels above.
Erdogan said last week that U.S. President Barack Obama had asked him to use his contacts with Egypt and Hamas to help achieve a cease-fire.
“Erdogan seems to be trying to give Hamas a political umbrella with his strong criticism of Israel,” said Alon Liel, professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former Israeli charge d’affaires in Turkey.
At home, Erdogan is hailed as a hero who dares to stand up against Israel. Thousands of his supporters, waving Palestinian flags, took to the streets after Friday prayers last week to denounce Israel’s offensives on Gaza across Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country.
Erdogan called Israel a “pirate state” that is “waging terrorism in the Middle East.” He also accused the United Nations of being absent from conflicts in which Muslims were victims. Erdogan regularly calls for a rotating membership for UN Security Council to ensure interests of Muslim states are always represented.
“Palestinian lands are being invaded step-by-step,” Erdogan said yesterday in Ankara. “Sooner or later, Israel will pay the price for all of the oppressed people it has martyred.”
Ties deteriorated after Israel’s invasion of Gaza in December 2008. Erdogan, whose party has Islamist roots, accused the Jewish state of using excessive force. Turkey canceled military ties in 2009 as it stepped up calls for Palestinian statehood.
The Arab Spring uprisings that brought elected governments with Islamist leanings to power in Egypt and Tunisia may help explain Erdogan’s move away from Israel as they unite to counterbalance Iranian influence in the region, said Mustafa Alani, a regional security analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
“For many years Turkey aligned itself with Israel,” he said in a phone interview. “Now we have a complete shift, competing with Iran on the question of who is going to counter the Israeli influence in the region.”
In the eyes of Arab public opinion, Erdogan “is liberating himself from the American pressure to support Israel while a lot of Arab governments are still unable to stand in the face of Israel because they are linked to the Americans,” Alani said. “This is a strategic investment for the long term for the Turkish leadership.”