Understanding the Turks

By Andrew Rosemarine, August 7, 2014

Turkey and its prime minister Recep Erdogan are enormously important for the future of the Middle East, and yet are underestimated and misunderstood by Jewry and Israel.

In 2008, Israel's consul in Istanbul told me that Turkey was Israel's "best friend in the Middle East" and that Israel would like their relationship to be a model for that with other Muslim countries. Mr Erdogan, however, recently declared that "Israel has surpassed Hitler in its barbarities," was "perpetrating genocide on the Palestinian people," and called for Israelis to be hauled before the International Criminal Court. This has roused such wrath from Jews worldwide, that relations will plummet to an all-time low unless both sides get a better grip on realities.

Prime Minister Erdogan will stand for election as the republic's president on Sunday. He is likely to win and increase his power. What he says matters, and Jews need to know how to react prudently, if at all.

But what he does is far more important. I've just come back from Anatolia, and have been shocked by Turks' obsession with Israel. Jews need to know how to deal with this complex state, and its Byzantine politics. Israel's fatal mistakes in the Mavi Marmara confrontation, and her deputy foreign minister's wholly unnecessary humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv, must not be repeated. Jews worldwide should build bridges with this great nation.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been premier since 2003, after a term as mayor of Istanbul. He is a seasoned politician, whose controversial acts and words have divided Turkish society over fundamental aspects of life and politics.

Jews need to build bridges with Turkey

His anti-Israel bashing will win him votes with many, when they see images of Muslim child victims in Gaza. He is an open supporter of fellow Islamists Hamas, and has suspended many major military agreements with Jerusalem. Israeli and US ambassadors to Ankara have secretly complained of his impeding Israel's good relations with Turkey.

Should Turkey elect him, he is likely to be president for at least five years, perhaps much longer. Turkish Jewry and Israel need to get along with him. This is a region where enemies of Israel are actively supplying Hamas, Jihad Islami, Hizbollah and Iran, with weaponry to use against Jews.

But not Mr Erdogan. Instead, he has helped Israel negotiate with Hamas and Syria, repeatedly condemned the Holocaust, and insisted that Turkish Jewry should not be targeted. His distastefully inflated anti-Zionist rhetoric is used for political gain.

What is far more important is that he has hinted at future co-operation with Israel, once hostilities are over. In the past this has included extensive military exchanges - Turkey even let the Israeli air force train there. As Turkey's economy booms, the two countries can benefit considerably from each other. Erdogan can help Israel by mediating with Hamas, whenever necessary, even now. Indeed, during current hostilities, he has said: "If Israel is sincere on making a ceasefire, we will convince Hamas to agree."

Israel needs Turkey as a major strategic, military and economic partner. She has three of Israel's most dangerous foes, Iran, Syria and Iraq, as neighbours. All three have developed nuclear technology to use against Israel, and Turkey can help impede them. Jews everywhere should strain every sinew to have Turkey as an ally.

Andrew Rosemarine is an international lawyer and a former Fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for Peace, Jerusalem.

    Last updated: 4:16pm, August 7 2014