ERDOGAN & THE ISRAEL CARD
By Steven J. Rosen
Mr. Erdogan does not always display such reactions to allegations of human rights violations. Last year, he defended Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for killing half a million Sudanese Christians and non-Arab Muslims. In March, 2010, he denied that Turks ever killed Armenian civilians. He labeled a U.S. congressional resolution on the Armenian deaths "a comedy, a parody." He said that the Turkish military garrison stationed in Cyprus since 1974 is "not an occupier" but "[ensures] the peace." On tens of thousands of Kurds killed by Turkish security forces from 1984 to 1999, he says nothing.
Could it be that there is something more to Mr. Erdogan's rage against Israel than just a spontaneous reaction to the loss of life here?
Turkish elections, 13 months away, hold the answer. Backing for Mr. Erdogan's party has fallen to 29%, the lowest level since it won power in 2002 and far below the 47% it scored in July, 2007. So, Mr. Erdogan decided to play the Israel Card.
He tested this tactic in January, 2009, in a confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos. Mr. Peres asked him in front of the cameras: "What would you do if you were to have in Istanbul every night a hundred rockets?" Mr. Erdogan shot back, "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill." Thousands of Turks applauded Mr. Erdogan's performance, greeting him with a hero's welcome and a sea of Turkish and Palestinian flags upon his return home to Ataturk Airport.
Mr. Erdogan's anger at the Israeli blockade is even more popular among his countrymen. In fact, 61% of Turks surveyed in one poll did not find his rage sufficient. "The public is in such a state that they almost want war against Israel," the pollster commented. "I think this is widespread in almost all levels of society." Mr. Erdogan has become a hero in the Muslim world, where he is seen as the "new Nasser," in the words of one Saudi writer.
The truth is that friendship toward Israel was always limited to the Turkish secular elites, including the military chiefs. Turkey is fertile ground for Mr. Erdogan's demagoguery because many ordinary people are raised to dislike Israel and — dare it be said — Jews. In April, 2010, the BBC World Service Poll found negative views of Israel among 77% of Turks.
Jews, as a people, fare no better than the Jewish state. In the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey, 73% of Turks rated their opinions of Jews as "negative." Meanwhile, 68% of Turks rated their opinions of Christians as "negative."
Turks don't like the United States much more than they do Israel. The same BBC poll found negative views of the U.S.A. among 70% of Turks, one of only two countries where perceptions of the United States actually worsened after the election of Barack Obama (positives fell to 13% from 21%, and negatives increased to 70% from 63%).
Nor is it the case that anti-Americanism in Turkey is primarily a response to U.S. support for Israel. Many Turkish citizens view the U.S.A. as anti-Muslim and see the war on terror as an anti-Muslim crusade across the Middle East. Turks resent the rich "imperialist" superpower and believe that the U.S.A. invaded Iraq for oil.
Islamists and the Turkish Left suspect that the U.S.A. and NATO propped up a succession of Turkish governments backed by the military. Others believe that the U.S.A. supports the Iraqi Kurds and may plan to create a Kurdish state in Iraq. And most remain convinced that members of the U.S. Congress who vote for Turkish genocide resolutions do so under the influence of Armenian-Americans, who are more numerous than Americans of Turkish origin.
Anti-American feelings in Turkey exist independently of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but these three phenomena are mutually reinforcing and convergent. More disturbingly, parallels to these trends pervade much of the Muslim world. What the flotilla incident demonstrates is that igniting this tinderbox of hostility toward Israel, Jews, and America does not take much of a spark.
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Steven J. Rosen is the Director of the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.
The foregoing article by Mr. Rosen was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2010, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/2668/erdogan-and-the-israel-card)
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