by David Parsons | JPost.com | October 29, 2011
Scholar Raphael Israeli explains why Turkey has decided to ratchet up its confrontation with Israel.
Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Pictured) and his AKP party, the nation of Turkey has made a dramatic shift in recent years away from its flirtation with the West and back toward Islam and its Ottoman past. This change of direction can be seen most dramatically in Ankara’s deliberate severance of its regional strategic alliance with Israel. In recent weeks Erdogan has taken this diplomatic divorce from verbal abuse to threats of domestic violence.
In early October, Turkey’s media claimed that Israeli fighter jets had loitered over a Turkish naval task force securing an area near Cyprus where Ankara plans exploratory drillings for natural gas. The IDF flatly denied the odd report of an “Israeli military provocation.”
A few weeks earlier, a Turkish battleship sailed in the eastern Mediterranean along the same route as the Gaza flotilla flagship Mavi Marmara last year, passing abnormally close to Israel’s coastline without the usual “friendly” warning.
Meantime, Erdogan told Time magazine last month that Israel possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal which presents a greater threat to regional peace than Iran’s renegade atomic program.
And in a controversial CNN interview, he even claimed Israel had killed “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians,” who in turn had killed only about 200 Israelis. Though CNN has since blamed the grossly exaggerated figures on an English mistranslation, Erdogan has seen no need to dial back his chilling words of incitement.
The Christian Edition recently sat down with Prof. Raphael Israeli, a just-retired lecturer on Islamic history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of numerous books on the Middle East, to get his assessment on why Turkey has decided to ratchet up its confrontation with Israel and when did its Eastward shift begin. Prof. Israeli says he was never convinced Turkey had left Islam to join the democratic world, adding that he had warned his colleagues all along that a Muslim resurgence was only a matter of time.
What is behind Turkey shedding its Western leanings and reverting to Islam?
Since the Ataturk revolution of the 1920s in Turkey, the world has been wrongly convinced that Islam had been eradicated there forever. That was the intention of Ataturk. But knowing the power of Islam, I was pretty much a lonely voice saying: “Just watch and wait! Islam can’t be eradicated so easily.”
So you thought that the roots of Islam were always there?
Did you believe that Turkey would never be a secular democracy ready to join the European Union? Absolutely, and in my book I warned about the rise of Islam in Europe and so forth, and about how Islam would make a comeback from the countryside to the cities, like the Maoist revolution in China. Islam was always strong in the countryside, and when the bourgeois in the city got careless it [Islam] was ready to come back. And this Islamist party [the AKP], which everybody mocked, saying “Oh come on, it’ll never amount to anything”; but I said that the revolution towards secularism in Turkey was never democratic. And that’s part of the reason why it was never accepted into the EU.
But hasn’t Turkey been democratic for decades?
The constitution in Turkey declares that democracy would be preserved and protected by the army. What kind of democracy is that? I don’t want to live in a country where the army preserves democracy. In my lifetime, I have witnessed repeated takeovers of thegovernment by the Turkish Army after the government showed signs of becoming too Islamist. They always gave it back to civilian administration after a while, but the fact that the army has to be the watchdog of democracy is not a very sound system, to say the least. So already for me, that was a defect built into the Turkish democracy.
So how did the AKP come to power?
In the 1990s, the main Islamist faction was the Welfare Party led by Necmettin Erbakan, who was the mentor of Erdogan. In 1996 his party was able, for the first time in history, to form an Islamist-led government. They did not have a majority of seats in the national parliament yet, but they were able to form a coalition government because they had the plurality. This was years before they won an outright majority in 2002 [under the new name “Freedom and Justice Party,” or AKP].
Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul, and during the period of the coalitiongovernment he made a fiery speech of the kind he routinely makes now with impunity, filled with anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric. But back then it was not possible to do so with impunity, and he was arrested, tried and spent some time in jail for it.
This was useful for his political career, because he was branded as a martyr.
His prison time added to his popularity?
Yes. They also used the traditional tactic of the Muslim Brotherhood of championing the poor underclass, which again is usually more observant and also usually includes greater numbers.
And where was Israel fitting into this?
When Erbakan came to government, it was the peak of the honeymoon between Israel and Turkey; that is, between the civil government in Ankara and Jerusalem. Until then, they had realized the value of this relationship because of a shared danger from political Islam, and because Turkey wanted to get into the European Union. So the Turks thought it would be useful for them to have good relations with Israel which would score points with the Europeans and Americans, specifically with the US Congress. Israel assisted Turkey by lobbying the US Congress so they would not issue a condemnation of the Armenian genocide during World War I.
So Jerusalem became one of their centers of interest. Trade picked up, tourism picked up. Israel was the first to assist Turkey in the aftermath of two enormous earthquakes in the late ’90s, etc. So the Turks started to realize that Israel was a very close friend, and started to regret the 20-to-30 years in which relations were cool because they thought their interests were with the Arab world. The military was the main sponsor of this, because of the excellent military relations between the two countries and the high-tech military equipment Israel was willing to sell to Turkey. And remember, the army was the watchdog of the democracy, so they were able to enforce this on the civilian government.
But Erbakan came in and tried to start a rapprochement with Iran, and all sorts of other things which didn’t sound good to the West. So after a year-and-ahalf of his government, the army moved in and removed him.
Shortly after that, Abdullah Gul – while Erdogan was still in prison – founded the Freedom and Justice Party, known today as the AKP by its Turkish acronym. It is the same old Welfare Party with a new name and a few other cosmetic changes. But it has a much more forceful and charismatic political leader in Ergodan. He knew that his appeal will be found among the poor in the countryside. While he was in prison, the AKP won a majority in elections in December of 2002. Abdullah Gul formed the first government, until seven months later when Erdogan was released from prison and was immediately made prime minister.
He went straight from jail to head of the government…
Exactly. Now when they came to power with the majority, their position was still uncertain. They had the majority, but they knew that the army was still strong and able to stop them – what the army did to their old boss, Erbakan, (who was a terrible anti- Semite who used the term “vermin” to refer to Jews and Zionists). The AKP knew that if they acted like that, the army would remove them. They were very careful to consolidate their position before making their move.
Their first sign came in March 2003, just three months after they were elected. In March 2003, America invaded Iraq, but the Turks didn’t allow the Americans to send troops into northern Iraq through Turkey. This made the invasion much more difficult and it slowed down the entire process.
But the American kept deluding themselves that it was just a show; that Turkey was still their ally.
But it wouldn’t take a long time for the next sign. They kept relations with Israel intact, but they started warming up with Iran and Syria – despite Syrian support for the Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
So they waited a while, intending all along to sever ties with Israel?
I wrote 10 years ago that this honeymoon [with Israel] would end sooner or later, either because the Turks would feel a sense of responsibility to help the Palestinians, or if an Islamic party came to power in Turkey. And I was ridiculed by fellow scholars who said there could never be an Islamic party in Turkey because the army wouldn’t allow it. But I said wait and see.
But now the honeymoon is ending, and it’s happening for both reasons. But people just refused to see what was going on. It used to be that no veiled woman in Turkey would be hired by any government agency. Now, when Erdogan travels, he appears in official meetings with his veiled wife. So what more do you need to know? But people are refusing to see it. Society is being re- Islamicized, and it’s working because of Erdogan’s immense popularity and because of his control of the army.
How did they gain control of the Turkish Army?
This started by appointing their own people to the high command in the army. Recently, Erdogan announced that there was a coup planned against the government. And armed with his popularity, the AKP arrested hundreds of Turkish generals and admirals, and these were the people who formed the basis of Turkish support for continuing strong relations with Israel. He also arrested dozens of journalists and cracked down on other aspects of democracy in Turkey.
He is trying to use his position as the head of an Islamist government to effect a turnaround in Turkish society which he and his friends have been planning for a long time. He was a very smart politician. He knew that he couldn’t do it until he had the army on his side, which now it is. You can see very careful planning, which has led to great success for the Islamist agenda in Turkey.
What impact will this have on Turkey’s position in the Arab world, keeping in mind the collective memory among the Arabs of the oppression they suffered under the Ottoman Turks?
Erdogan has emerged as the new Nasser [once the popular president of Egypt]. He’s playing that card and likes that role. There is still some residual fear, resentment and anger in the Arab world against the Turks, but it is balanced by the fact that Erdogan is bringing back the glory days of Islam.
He’s standing up to Israel and America.
He’s championing the Palestinians, and so forth. For Erdogan, the $3 billion in trade with Israel can be compensated by increased trade with Iran and/or the Arabs in the Gulf.
Erdogan is using blood libels against Israel and Jews, making outrageous claims that he knows are not true. It scores him a lot of points on the Muslim street and doesn’t cost him anything.
Western leaders say it’s “unacceptable,” but this is worthless. They don’t take any punitive actions, so his rhetoric gets more intense. If [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad can do it, why can’t he? It’s really thuggery!
He’s being a bully…
That’s right. He doesn’t want to be reasonable or negotiate, he just wants to threaten Israel. Even though the UN said the blockade of Gaza was legal, he rejected that. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to occupy northern Cyprus, which only causes him some minor problems with the EU and the Americans.