Erdogan’s Israel remark reveals frustration

Even for a severe critic of Israel like Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the outburst on Tuesday appeared to be taking things to the extreme.

At a meeting of his party’s leaders in Ankara, Mr Erdogan launched a broadside against the Egyptian military that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government last month.

This has become a recurring theme in his recent speeches — but this time, he identified a new culprit. “What do they say in Egypt? ‘Democracy is not the ballot box,’” he said. “Who is behind this? There is Israel.” And he had proof, a video of a 2011 symposium in which French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, sitting next to the then Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, warned against the possibility that the Brotherhood could come to power in Egypt. Mr Erdogan remarked that Mr Levy was “also Jewish”.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said that the accusation was not worth responding to and it also drew derision from Egyptian spokesmen and condemnation from Washington. Many observers wondered how a world leader could say such a thing. “I’m beginning to think Erdogan may actually be quite stupid”, tweeted Financial Times foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman.

It is impossible, of course, to get inside the Turkish premier’s head to understand why he said what he did, but the source of his frustration is clear. The veteran prime minister has, for a decade, relentlessly pursued a foreign policy designed to make Turkey a major player in the region, with strong ties to the Arab nations and to Iran. At the same time, he has portrayed his administration as a firm ally of the US, even while Turkey’s once strategic alliance with Israel deteriorated. But the developments of the last two-and-a-half years have ruined that policy.

Turkey has adopted a critical attitude towards the Syrian regime’s bloody suppression of the revolution there, estranging it from Syria’s patron, Iran.

Mr Erdogan tried to extend his patronage over post-revolutionary Egypt, with limited success. But now, with the downfall of the Brotherhood, he finds himself diametrically opposed to the new military-backed government in Cairo. His criticism of the Egyptian generals also puts him in conflict with their main backers, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Add to that the criticism from the US and the EU over his violent crackdown on protesters in Istanbul and Ankara, and it is not hard to see why Mr Erdogan is casting around for someone else to blame.

Last updated: 8:45pm, August 22 2013