Erdogan's Rants About Gaza Aren't Just Aimed at Israel

The Turkish prime minister may be viciously slamming Israel over loss of life in the Strip, but he's really trying to stick it to Egypt's president.

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Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during an Iftar in Istanbul, Turkey, July 18, 2014.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during an Iftar in Istanbul, Turkey, July 18, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

At 1:30 A.M. on Friday, sounds of shattering glass were heard in the building housing the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. “Murderous Israel, get out of Palestine,” cried angry demonstrators outside, who threw rocks and sticks at various buildings in the city’s Levant neighborhood. “Hamas – strike, strike, strike Israel!” they screamed.

The police intervened. Tear-gas grenades were thrown at the demonstrators, and they dispersed.

The home of the Israeli ambassador in Ankara was also hit by barrages of stones. This time, however, although the police prevented demonstrators from entering the residence's courtyard, they stood aside when rocks were thrown.

This was apparently a more “official” rally than the one in Istanbul: Among the participants were several members of parliament wrapped in keffiyehs, who addressed the demonstrators and spoke of the “genocide” being perpetrated by Israel in the Gaza Strip.

A day earlier at a session of parliament, curses were exchanged between a representative of the opposition and the deputy chairman of the House, Sadik Yakut, after the opposition MP slammed “the status of spectators that has been adopted by the European Community and Turkey” in the face of the Israeli operation in Gaza.

Several hours later, the four leading parties in the Turkish parliament published a joint condemnation of the operation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not wait for that parliamentary initiative, not to mention for any action to be taken by the United Nations. He began to express his opinion on the international community already at the start of the crisis in Syria; ever since he has been beating that institution with a heavy, nailed cudgel.

“Do you hear anything from the UN? Everything they do is for show … Why was the UN established? For peace in the world. Does it contribute to peace? It seeks only to serve its secret goal.”

“Secret goal” is a code word for anyone who conspires against the Erdogan regime. One time it’s the Western countries, then it's Israel, and at other junctures it’s the Arab countries that consider Erdogan’s Turkey a blight.

“There are several Islamic countries that are apparently pleased with what’s happening today in Palestine. If that were not the case, they would intervene,” shouted Erdogan at his audience in the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.

But the premier saved his choicest words for Israel: “In light of such incidents, do you think it’s possible to normalize relations between Turkey and Israel? On the one hand, you drop 400-500 tons of bombs, kill defenseless people and threaten world peace, and then you want to talk about normalization? That’s totally unacceptable to us.”

But, even if there may be justification for condemning the harm caused to innocent people, the prime minister's anger is not devoid of ulterior political considerations.

In the past year a violent verbal front has developed between him and the Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. Erdogan – who hastened to support the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood even though it perceived him as a "suspicious object" when he suggested it adopt the Turkish model of political involvement – embarked on an all-out war against Sissi from the moment the latter came to power. The rift between the countries has steadily deepened, until Turkey has become the enemy of the people in Egyptian public discourse, almost like Hamas.

Operation Protective Edge and Turkey’s close ties with the Hamas leadership, and especially with the organization's political bureau chief Khaled Meshal, ostensibly paved the way for intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from which it was excluded for decades by Cairo and Jerusalem. Indeed, Turkey authored a cease-fire proposal with Qatar, but it was clear from the start that neither Egypt nor Israel would agree to it, if only because of the identity of the two initiators.

Why did Erdogan decide to get embroiled in a situation whose outcome was predictable?

“He had to stick a thorn in Sissi’s eye,” explains a Turkish opposition politician. “Erdogan is no fool. He knows that a Turkish initiative won’t be accepted either in Israel or in Cairo, but this was an opportunity to anger Egypt.”

The Egyptian response was not long in coming: Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri directly accused Turkey and Qatar of attempting to foil Egypt's own initiative. “If Hamas had accepted the Egyptian proposal, the lives of many scores of people would have been saved,” said Shukri, indirectly blaming Turkey and Qatar for the fact that Cairo's own ideas for a truce were not accepted.

At a time when the Turkish media are under a biting attack by Erdogan, there is still no shortage of voices willing to prick the balloon of his rhetoric. One of them belongs to Burak Bekdil, who, in a incisive article that he published in the Hurriyet Daily News, asks his prime minister: “Would Erdogan, who considers a [Turkish] boy of 15 a terrorist who should be killed with tear gas, tolerate an attack of 500 missiles over Turkish skies? Would he call for restraint if some organization, party or country were to declare that all Turks are a legitimate target (as did Sami Abu Zohari, the Hamas spokesman).

"Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for confirming what I wrote in 2009. At the time, I wrote that to describe the Turks as fair mediators between the Israelis and the Arabs is like saying that the Greeks are fair mediators between Turkey and Greek Cyprus.”

Semih Idiz, another of the newspaper’s senior columnists, notes that despite Turkey’s aspiration of becoming a regional leader, it is no longer welcome. “It’s not only in the West that Turkey is not liked – in the Arab world, too, its only friends are Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood … There is nothing that Erdogan can give to the citizens of Gaza today except for false hope,” he writes.

But Erdogan knows where his electorate is, and with the presidential election coming up, his slogans condemning Israel and the international community are promising in terms of his electioneering.

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