Benjamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have so much in common, it’s a wonder they aren’t the best of friends. For example, the war against terror that both have been waging lately – the Israeli prime minister’s against Palestinian terror, and the Turkish president’s against Kurdish terror.
Both leaders are also contending with a political threat from the right resulting from the terror – Netanyahu with the Israeli right and Erdogan with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – and both men are contending with citizens who are no longer willing to put up with their respective excuses for terror.
All this should have made them fellow travelers. In Turkey, as in Israel, it is obvious that only political and diplomatic conciliation has the potential to reduce the terror. Yet the governments of both states view conciliation as appeasement in the face of an enemy – Palestinian or Kurdish – whose only goal is “to destroy the state.”
And, of course, both leaders proclaim that there is no negotiating with terrorists. But the truth is that both states have negotiated with terror organizations, reaching prisoner-exchange and cease-fire agreements with them. In Turkey’s case, there have also been agreements on the treatment of the country’s Kurdish minority.
The burden weighing on Erdogan at present is greater: He must make sure that his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, wins the November 1 parliamentary election with at least two-thirds of the legislature’s 550 seats – which would enable him to finally change the constitution. He doesn’t want a coalition government, like the one forced on him after the previous election in June.
Erdogan wants to be like his Egyptian rival Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi; an omnipotent president who is not reined in by the constitution. As in Egypt and in Israel, the political question facing Erdogan is whether terror is good for his political interests. Or, in other words, how to leverage the terror to political advantage.
Two major terror attacks have cast a shadow over Turkey’s campaign season: The July attack on the Amara Cultural Center in the Kurdish city of Suruc and the October 10 attack on an Ankara train station. More than 130 people died in the attacks. In between, Turkish civilians, soldiers and police officers have been killed in clashes, and Turks, like Israelis, demand an “appropriate” response.
In Turkey, too, the first response was to suspend negotiations, in their case with the Kurdish separatists. Concurrently, Erdogan launched airstrikes on “terrorists’ nests” in Iraq, sealed off cities and declared parts of the country’s Kurdish provinces to be “military areas.”
Now, Erdogan must persuade voters that no other leader in Turkey can fight terror effectively. He claims that no previous Turkish government fought Kurdish terror as he and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who succeeded Erdogan when the latter became president, have done. Historically speaking, he’s wrong. Successive governments in Ankara have waged violent struggles against the Kurds since the mid-1980s. Tens of thousands of Kurds were expelled, thousands of villages were erased and over 40,000 people died over 30 years of fighting.
But that isn’t the main thing. No other Turkish leader today has a record that comes close to Erdogan’s. According to an opinion poll published last week, support for his party has risen from 40.5 percent to more than 42 percent. That isn’t enough to fulfill Erdogan’s dream, but it may signal the public mood. The war on terror is more important today than freedom of expression or civil rights. One wonders what a similar poll would find in Israel.
A Pew Research Center poll carried out in April and May found Turkish respondents split between those who were satisfied with Turkey’s democracy and those who were not – results that were expressed at the polls in June.
Since then, however, the number of terror attacks has grown and the public’s priorities have apparently shifted. The attacks might also weaken support for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP,) which passed the electoral threshold for the first time in June, winning 13 percent of the vote. Calling the party a part of “the terror infrastructure” has become a main plank of Erdogan’s platform, despite evidence indicating that the perpetrators of the two bombings were members of an organization that was founded in southeastern Turkey with the aim of recruiting volunteers for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in order to fight the Kurdish organizations in Syria.
According to reports in the Turkish media, the perpetrators appeared on the wanted lists of Turkish intelligence agencies but were not arrested for four months. The government has imposed secrecy on the investigation, a move that has been interpreted as an attempt to conceal the intelligence failures. With less than two weeks to go before the election, the government cannot afford to expose these failures. What is permitted, and even encouraged, is extensive reporting on the successes in the war on terror.
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