The results of this Turkish Presidential election were very much discernable from the day that they were announced. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the ‘strongman’ of Turkish politics for the last 12 years, was due to assume the mantle of Turkish President at the very start of the game. Despite numerous controversies, from having an al-Qaeda financier as one of his ‘best friends’ to a corruption scandal spanning over 1000 pages of police investigation (and a subsequent cover-up), the Turkish people have kept their faith in him unwaveringly and he is set to ride into the Presidential Office with approximately 53% of the vote.
Of course, you don’t get poll numbers like that by playing a clean game; Mr. Erdogan has used the convenience of being Prime Minister to inflate his media coverage tenfold. Such an example can be found in the case of state broadcaster TRT, akin to the ‘Turkish BBC’, dedicating almost 9 hours to Erdogan between July 4 and July 6. Over the same period, it covered another candidate, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, for three minutes and 24 seconds and the another candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, for only 45 seconds. That, and according to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Erdogan combines his campaign events with his official ventures done in his capacity as Prime Minister. These events, covered by the media and funded with taxpayer money, essentially equate to using public funds for his own campaigning. Yet, in using this morally questionable method, which one Turkish MP compared to using steroids, Erdogan has fundamentally secured electoral victory.
The Turkey-Israel Relationship: Historical Context
But what does the election of the new Turkish President matter to Israel? To answer that, it is necessary to examine some of the context of the Israel-Turkey relationship. Turkey was, and remains to be special to the Jewish State in that it was the first Muslim (albeit formally secular) country, let alone the first other Middle Eastern country, to formally recognise the State of Israel. This is particularly pertinent for Israel in that Turkey is a NATO member, that being a Western bloc with which Israel quite strongly affiliates; Turkey also borders the hostile lands of Iraq, Syria, and to name a more contemporary threat, Iran; It also holds clout with other Arab nations by virtue of the fact that Turkey’s former incarnation as the Ottoman Empire was once the mandatory where many Arab nations now stand.
The historic golden days of the Israel-Turkey relationship were formed by the fact that Turkey was indeed a member of NATO, and as such stood firmly against the socialist leanings of many Arab states in the 1950s and early 60s- particularly with regards to Syria and Egypt. Israel also disliked the ideological stance of those states, not because of their socialism (with Israel itself having socialist origins as a country) but rather the fact that those countries’ collective efforts were concentrated towards Israel’s destruction.
Despite the common ground found in the early years, this early friendship soon faded. One significant reason was the increasing dependence of Turkey on Arab energy resources. However, another pertinent reason for the divide was Turkey’s hope to maintain its place in the Arab world as a Muslim, Middle Eastern nation, despite its alternate identity as a ‘Western’ nation- this being an identity question which Turkey has yet to resolve, as a nation culturally and geographically torn between East and West. With this, from the middle of the 1960s, Turkey has supported virtually every anti-Israel UN resolution on the list; from the 1974 motion to make the PLO an ‘observer state’ in the UN, to the infamous Resolution 3379 of 1975- ‘Zionism is Racism’.
An Old Flame Rekindled
After several cold decades, relations warmed up again in the 1990s, with new faces in Turkish leadership signifying a new attitude towards Israel. The new post-Soviet hegemony of the United States meant that the pro-Israel stance of the US ‘rubbed off’ on Turkey to a certain extent. Strategic ties, given that Turkey and Israel were (and remain to be) the two strongest militaries in the Middle East, were also of significance in terms of training and strategic planning against shared threats such as Syria. The rejection faced by Turkey from entering into the burgeoning European project also incentivised Turkey to seek another “friendly ‘Western’ face” to do business with, and to acquire certain technologies from. Meanwhile, Israel needed a strong Muslim-majority country as an ally, especially one in such a geographically pertinent location with borders to Iraq, Iran and Syria. It also required a buying market for its burgeoning defence and high-tech industries. But foundational to this cooperation, of course, were the shared values of democracy, secularism and the free-market were the most natural reasons for the two countries to gravitate together.
Break-Up: The Erdogan Years
However, the 90s romance that many Israeli policy-makers so fondly remember began to break apart in 2002, with the election of a moustachioed man called- you guessed it- Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The first few years were fairly tame, with no major positive or negative changes occurring. But bring in Operation Cast Lead in 2008, and it all changes. Erdogan calls the operation (on Israel’s side), a “crime against humanity”. A year later, he storms off the stage at the Davos World Economic Forum after a bizzare and unprovoked diatrabe against Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Add another year, and bad turns to worse. In 2010, the event that essentially epitomises the implosion of Israeli-Turkish relations occurs when the IHH (a Hamas-affiliated group listed as a terror organisation in both Israel and the US) sends a flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, to Gaza. We all remember the story- Israeli commandos raid it for breaking the Israeli blockade of Gaza, several Turkish citizens on the flotilla get killed, and Erdogan is beyond furious. The Turkish Ambassador to Tel Aviv is recalled, the Israeli Ambassador to Ankara is expelled and mass anti-Israel protests erupt across Turkey. The trade and military relations that took decades to build were severed on Erdogan’s orders, and some Turkish newspapers even talked about the possibility of war between the two countries.
Since 2010, the hysterically anti-Israel position of Erdogan has not since subsided. In May of last year, his hatred of Israel showed on a more personal level- having called somebody an ‘Israeli sperm’ as an insult (classy guy). Three months later, Erdogan insisted that Israel pulled the strings of the Egyptian coup against his personal friend, the deposed Muslim Brotherhood-associated President Mohammed Morsi. And over the duration of Operation Protective Edge, the Turkish Prime Minister’s untamed ranting has only grown more frequent and more vicious, not least in an attempt to bolster his anti-Israel ‘street-cred’ before August elections.
When Demagoguery becomes Pure Hatred
In the last 2 weeks alone, Erdogan has galvanised his ‘Screw Israel Track-Record’ more than anybody thought humanly possible. Highlights include:
-Saying that ‘the actions of Israel in Gaza surpass what Hitler did to them [Jews]‘.
-Asking Turkish Jews to apologise for the actions of Israel in Gaza.
-Suggesting that Israel is deliberately killing Palestinian mothers and babies in Gaza.
-Accusing Israel of ‘keeping Hitler’s spirit alive‘.
-‘Gladly’ returning an award from the American Jewish Congress during the Gaza Conflict.
-Referring to the Gaza dead (including Hamas militants) as Martyrs.
What ‘President Erdogan’ Means for Turkey and Israel
With that said, Erdogan as President is a curse, but also to an extent, a blessing for the Jewish State. The negatives are that Erdogan will become the face of Turkey, and will have some influence on the public emotional tide as well as some policy decisions. There is a chance that his anti-Israel fury will cool down after the elections are over. If that is not the case, however, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has made it clear that “…we have shown restraint at his rants… if that does not happen, Israel will respond.” In the event that Erdogan is willing to continue his populist attacks on Israel after the election, it is inevitable that relations will deteriorate further (from the Israeli side) even though Erdogan would have no direct involvement in crafting Turkish foreign policy directives. The positives, however, are that the Presidency is a widely ceremonial role and the Prime Minister is the one that makes the real decisions, namely those of foreign policy. The President appoints the new Chief of Staff and has limited military powers, and appoints numerous judiciary figures, but this does not have much of an effect on external policy.
It is unlikely that a period of détente and reconciliation is nigh between Israel and Turkey- the current Prime Minister has set a precedent in policy towards Israel but also in public opinion towards the Jewish State that will be greatly difficult to turn around. But after Erdogan, things can only get better.