Lebanese children re-enact the arrival of the “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza, in Sidon, this week.
Lebanese children re-enact the arrival of the “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza, in Sidon, this week. Photo by AP
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"It's very sad, what has happened in our relations with Israel," a Turkish citizen wrote me this week from the city of Izmir. "There are people in Turkey who believe we have been cursed with a prime minister like [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, but it appears Israel is suffering more than we are and is not managing to find a respectable statesman who can lead the country."

This letter was not an isolated case. Erdogan's leadership is raising eyebrows, and not only in Turkey. Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the influential Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, has pointed precisely to why Arabs are concerned about the repercussions of Erdogan's policy: "Didn't we tell you yesterday that Hassan Nasrallah wants to take back his role after the rug was pulled from underneath him by Turkey, following what happened on the 'Freedom Flotilla' off the coast of Gaza? Didn't we also tell you that 'the game has been the same game, but the ability of the players is in decline,' with regard to the Palestinian cause?"

Alhomayed says the real danger is Tehran's intervention and the declaration by Ali Shirazi, adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, of Iran's readiness to provide a military escort for the next flotilla. "Even the Hamas movement, which is calling for the Gaza blockade to be lifted, understood the issue, and quickly rejected the Iranian proposal," he wrote.

Other Arab commentators, too, who cannot be said to go easy on Israel, are warning of the "excessive rejoicing" in Turkish arenas. One has depicted Turkey as the next member of the axis of renegade states, like Syria and Iran. Such an axis could complicate the Palestinian problem because it will prevent the moderate states from obtaining a compromise.

The depiction of Israel as a violent, insane state with no self-restraint is not new, write a number of commentators, and therefore there is no "real victory" in it. The real question is whether "the new Ottoman sultan," as Asharq al-Awsat has called Erdogan, will be able to solve the Arabs' problems.

Even if there is no clear answer to this, Erdogan has already achieved one thing at least: He has brought Turkey into the front line with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the battle for regional influence. The latter two countries are gritting their teeth in face of the new legitimacy Hamas has obtained thanks to the Turkish-sponsored flotilla.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is indeed more courteous toward Turkey than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, but he too has not gone to any great lengths to praise Turkey for "its struggle against Israel."

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who visited Turkey this week, found himself in a sticky situation. On the one hand, he, like everyone else, condemned the attack on the flotilla and expressed condolences to Erdogan and the Turkish people for the death of Turkish citizens, and as expected he spoke about the need to lift the blockade. On the other hand, he was not accorded the same splendid public reception that Syrian President Bashar Assad received. Abbas felt like he had been upstaged and that Hamas now is the senior figure when it comes to the Palestinians' foreign affairs.

 

American jabs

But the flotilla affair has not been all roses for Erdogan either. One surprise, for example, came from Pennsylvania, where Fethullah Gulen runs his powerful religious social center, which influences millions of Turks in Turkey and abroad.

Gulen, who has written more than 60 books and hundreds of articles about religion and society in Turkey, heads a huge eponymous movement that plays a powerful role in a country that defines itself as secular. The movement, which owns a number of newspapers in Turkey, also has great influence on the voting of the millions of Turks who brought victory to the Justice and Development Party. Erdogan sees himself as a disciple of Gulen, who preaches a socially liberal yet religiously conservative Islam and aspires to a religious state.

In an interview he gave to The Wall Street Journal, Gulen saw fit to criticize the way the flotilla was organized. According to the newspaper: "Mr. Gulen said organizers' failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid 'is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.'"

For Erdogan, this was a resounding slap in the face. Gulen is not a political rival, but rather almost a father figure for him. And as if that were not enough, Erdogan's deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, who is by no means a supporter of Israel and severely criticized the attack on the flotilla, declared that, "[Gulen] is speaking the truth as always."

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition Republican People's Party, whom Erdogan has accused of serving Israel's interests, hastened to declare: "I am not a lobbyist for Israel, but rather for the public. If the prime minister wants to understand who the lobbyist for Israel is, he should look to his deputy, who is making statements contrary to the government's."

The leader of the opposition also attacked Erdogan for making foreign policy domestic policy and vice versa, adding that the premier should have used diplomatic means to express dissatisfaction with Israel.

"Erdogan almost declared war on Israel at the meeting of his party last Tuesday," reported Kilicdaroglu. "His party, however, is evincing a more moderate and cautious policy. Foreign policy cannot be conducted from a position of heroism, but rather from a position of reason. The foreign minister must reveal publicly the correspondence there was between Israel and Turkey so all of us will know whether or not Israel warned Turkey."

Bitter battle

Between the two parties there is a bitter battle raging on the question of the package of reforms Erdogan is proposing, which includes among other things a structural change in the country's judicial system. Erdogan is aiming to give the government more authority in appointing judges to Turkey's Constitutional Court, which would allow him to create an outpost of influence in a bastion that until now has crushed many of his initiatives.

This is exactly the fear of the opposition, which has submitted a petition to that very court against the legality of the reform. This week the court decided to deliberate on the petition, which if accepted is liable to thwart another important aspect of Erdogan's attempt to solidify his position in power.

Israel has now been thrown into the midst of this domestic political battle, for what is more persuasive than to accuse the opposition party of "supporting the enemy" or betraying the homeland? If up until a few weeks ago, Erdogan was accusing the opposition of subverting democracy and ruining the process of Turkey's entry into the European Union because of its opposition to the reforms he is proposing, now he can sit back and let Israel do his work for him.

Is Arab and domestic criticism likely to change Erdogan's stance? "With Erdogan, everything is personal," says a source from the opposition party. "He now needs a rope to climb down from the limb that he's gone out on, and it would be best if it were provided quickly because this man with a short fuse is also capable of causing Turkey's foreign policy to fall apart. I hope this time Israel will be wiser than he is."