Why Erdogan is taking his anti-Israel drive to next level

By Anat Lapidot-Firilla, March 7, 2013
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Pugnacious: Erdogan (Photo: Reuters)

Pugnacious: Erdogan (Photo: Reuters)

Sadly, there was nothing unique about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comment last week that Zionism is a “crime against humanity”.

Before Israel’s war with Gaza in 2008/2009, politicians and media outlets occasionally weighed in against Israel — in addition to the regular attacks from within Islamist circles — but the invective was not co-ordinated by the state. However, since Operation Cast Lead and in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 in which nine Turkish activists died after Israeli commandos stormed their boat, anti-Israel rhetoric has begun to form part of a long-term political strategy.

Today, Mr Erdogan’s verbal assaults on Israel are promoted by his Justice and Development Party (AKP), with the help of state-co-opted media outlets. The result over the past two years has been more antisemitism in the press at large and an increasing number of attacks on Jewish-owned property.

One goal of the campaign has been to demonise Israel as barbaric and uncivilised, and to question the historical basis for its existence. Mainly, however, the aim has been to establish Turkey, under the leadership of the AKP, as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, a regional superpower and the key to world peace and stability.

The campaign is a natural extension of the nationalist and religious thinking that undergirds the AKP but also reflects the party’s desire to position itself as a representative of oppressed Muslims all over the world.

Mr Erdogan’s rhetoric, which is designed as much to boost his popularity at home as for international consumption, is carefully calibrated to reflect the common view in the Islamic world that global governments and institutions are discriminating against Muslims under the guise of “Western universalism”.

Historically, legal limitations on internal debates involving religion in Turkey have meant that foreign affairs was one arena where Islamic ideology could get a hearing. Since coming to power, Mr Erdogan has been eager to take advantage of that relative freedom to manufacture consent for his anti-Israel strategy.

Turkey was formerly Israel’s closest Muslim ally but, with the ever-increasing international pressure on Israel, the Erdogan government has seen an opportunity to boost Turkey’s standing in forums such as the UN — where last year the General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestinian membership.

Backed up by an economy still performing relatively well, Mr Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu feel free to push a bold new Turkey on the international stage: hawkish on Cyprus, ever-less bothered by a crisis-ridden EU and trashing an ever-more isolated Israel.

Dr Anat Lapidot-Firilla is academic director at the Mediterranean Unit, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

Last updated: 5:45pm, March 7 2013