Of all the half-truths and misconceptions that mar the American debate over the level of influence exercised by Israel on U.S. Middle East policy, the most irritating has to be the manner in which Israel’s foes ignore the behavior of our Arab and Middle Eastern allies when it comes to confounding America’s national interests in the region.
In recent years, non-Arab Turkey has frequently proved this point. Like Israel, Ankara can count on an active, influential domestic lobby (which arguably includes leading American Jewish organizations, who, for “strategic reasons,” have eagerly aided the Turkish government in derailing attempts by U.S. legislators to recognize the genocide of the Armenians that occurred almost a century ago.) Unlike Israel, though, Turkey’s current leadership prefers to scorn those U.S. imperatives it disagrees with, rather than engage in a diplomatic back-and-forth.
When President Barack Obama visited Israel in March, his attempt to mend relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was widely regarded as a triumph. Relations between Israel and Turkey have been heavily strained since May 2010, when Israeli naval commandos confronted a seaborne flotilla of Islamist thugs, sponsored by the sinister Islamist “charity,” the IHH, who tried to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. According to the conventional account of what happened during his trip to Israel, Obama “persuaded” Netanyahu to phone Erdogan, apologize for the loss of life in the flotilla clash, and begin negotiations about paying compensation to the “victims” of Israel’s entirely justifiable action.
Actually, Netanyahu didn’t need much persuading. For one thing, Israeli officials were never happy with the collapse of relations with Turkey, its historic ally. For another, the Israelis calculated that paying compensation was preferable to a continued legal and political battle over the Gaza blockade. Finally, the wily Netanyahu may well have foreseen what has now come to pass: that Erdogan would backtrack and thus put the U.S. in the embarrassing position of having to cajole Turkey while Israel cooperates.
Despite pleas from Secretary of State John Kerry not to do so, Erdogan insists that he will proceed with a visit to Gaza in May. Kerry’s argument is that Erdogan risks endangering the prospect of reconciling Hamas with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank—a position which, significantly, is shared by the PA, whose representative in Ankara, Nabil Maarouf, explicitly said he would prefer that Erdogan travel to Gaza after reconciliation between the two factions.
Many Turkish analysts believe that Erdogan’s defiance is rooted in domestic concerns. The dangerous blend of Islamism and nationalism that defines Turkish politics today has put Erdogan on the defensive. His failure to prevent the Assad regime in Syria from continuing the slaughter of its own people with weapons both chemical and conventional makes him look weak. He is having a hard time selling the Turkish public on a peace agreement with the restive Kurdish minority, whose suffering is largely ignored by a western press focused on Gaza. And his decision to play ball with Netanyahu triggered an angry response from the families of the flotilla “victims” and from the IHH as well, which slammed Erdogan for negotiating with the Israelis while the Gaza blockade remains in place.
In the same manner as countless Middle Eastern leaders before him, Erdogan figures that going on the offensive on the Palestinian front will win him back some much-needed credibility. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the purpose of Erdogan’s trip is to secure precisely the outcome that the U.S. and the PA fear will be set back—namely, reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
Speaking with the Turkish daily Hurriyet, Davutoglu said, “If the Palestinians agree, it may be possible [for Erdogan] to go to Gaza with [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas.”
The prospect of visibly brokering an historic deal between Abbas and the Hamas leadership—whose supporters enthusiastically threw Fatah members off rooftops during the 2006 civil war in Gaza—clearly excites the Turkish Prime Minister.
Hurriyet, though, does not share Erdogan’s confidence. “This, however, is the moment when Erdogan must decide if he wants Turkey to be a major player in the Middle East, or appear to be a country that is supporting factionalism among Muslim entities,” the paper editorialized. “…If Turkey wants to regain its influence, it is clear that this will not come about by being a spoiler because of the ruling party’s Islamist sympathies. It will only come about if Turkey is once again an impartial country with open channels to all concerned parties.”
Moreover, Syria may yet derail Erdogan’s Gaza plans. Now that the Obama Administration has confirmed, via a letter sent to Congressional leaders, that Assad’s forces have used the deadly poisonous gas sarin in their assault, the “red line” which Obama has frequently talked about in relation to Syria has finally been crossed. During a visit to Washington, DC, Egeman Bagis, a Turkish official with known pro-western instincts, pleaded with the Obama Administration to prod Russian President Vladmir Putin into ending his unflinching support for Assad. The timing of Erodgan’s snub of Kerry could not, therefore, be more awkward.
Will Erdogan now reappraise the situation in the light of these developments? Only he can answer that. All I will note is that leaders who cultivate personality cults, as Erdogan has certainly done, aren’t exactly known for their ability or readiness to change their minds.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.