Other than the remnants of Sadat’s Egypt, whose peace with Israel is now as fragile as peace can be, more Western hope was invested in Turkey than any other country in the Middle East. It was at one point less Islamist than secular, an applicant to the European Union and a member of NATO but not the Arab League. In the late 1990s, Israel and Turkey seemed virtual allies.
That alliance has shattered, the only ember of hope being a steady trade relationship between Israeli and Turkish businesses, but even that feels like baseball teams under slate gray clouds trying to squeeze in one more inning before the storm.
The downturn can be traced to Recep Tayyip Erdogan becoming prime minister in 2003. Since then there have been a number of dramatic flare-ups, including one at the Davos conference in 2009 when he angrily walked off the stage during a discussion on the Gaza conflict, telling Israeli President Shimon Peres, “when it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.”
Then came the flotilla episode a year later, when eight Turks were killed by Israeli soldiers who boarded a vessel that was attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Erdogan, who still insists Israel owes him an apology, seems to have gone out of his way to not only distance himself from the Jewish state but to demonize it. In November he accused Israel of the “mass killing of Muslims.” Most recently, in late February, the Turkish leader told a U.N. forum in Vienna that Zionism was a “crime against humanity,” like “fascism.”
“This from a man whose country continues to deny its own acts of genocide against the Armenian people a century ago, and its brazen oppression of its Kurdish minority today,” noted Michael Freund in a Jerusalem Post column.
Some political observers see this behavior as a signal that Turkey is turning to Iran rather than the West for support. Certainly comments delegitimizing Israel are welcomed in Tehran, where the nuclear clock ticks to midnight. Yes, the United States is pushing anti-Iranian sanctions, but Turkey is freely trading with Iran, and with the blessings of the Obama administration that issued waivers in December exempting Turkey (and nine other major economic powers, such as China, India, South Korea and Taiwan) from complying with those sanctions.
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived for talks in Ankara soon after Erdogan’s latest outburst, which a State Department spokesman called “particularly offensive.” Kerry said it was “objectionable.” Diplomatic talk is by nature mild, but outrageous statements made against a key U.S. ally deserve a requisite response.
Perhaps Kerry felt a stronger response would further hurt his efforts to improve relations between Israel and Turkey. But Israel is not liked among Turks, and Erdogan scores political points by speaking out against it. If the U.S. wants to convince him to change his stance on Israel and on Turkey’s regression on the democracy front — freedom of the press, women’s rights, etc. — it will have to deal with him in a manner he, like most bullies, understands: firmly, with actions that support its resolve.