If It Happened in Turkey, Could It Happen in Israel?

As in Istanbul, so in Jerusalem? The Turkish protests bear more similarities to Israel’s massive social justice protests of 2011 than they to do the various Arab uprisings.

As yet another country in Israel’s greater orbit faces an uprising, albeit distinctly different from Arab Spring that changed the face of the region, there’s much that can be learned in Jerusalem just by watching Istanbul – and Ankara, and the 65 other provinces that have been demonstrating against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turkish protests bear more similarities, in fact, to Israel’s massive social justice protests of 2011 than they to do the various Arab uprisings – some of them successfully toppling dictators, some of them put under the thumb of less shakable regimes, and some leading, as we know all too well, to devastating civil war.

The Turks’ anger is aimed in part at the tycoons – friends of Erdogan who have profited handsomely as he steered the country to an unprecedented decade of economic growth. When the tycoons decide they want to uproot old sycamore trees in a popular downtown park and turn it into a shopping mall with apartments for the wealthy, they do so – but now, we know, at their own peril. It would be a bit like the government not only allowing the architectural monstrosity called Holyland to be built in Jerusalem, but deciding to sell off a swath of Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv to a developer with plans to slap up another luxury housing project.

It isn’t just that Erdogan represents the tycoons – and is one himself. Ten years since his election victory, he has been pushing the boundaries in Turkey’s tense secular-religious divide – another problem that looks a lot like Israel. Lawmakers in his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) indicated last month they would support a ban on kissing in public places such as subways, decrying such public displays of affection as immoral. The controversy follows new government curbs on the sale of alcohol. Just last week AK parliamentarians rushed through legislation limiting the hours of the sale of alcohol, banning alcohol advertising and prohibiting new shops and bars from opening within 100 meters of a school or mosque. (In densely packed downtown Istanbul, that’s just about everywhere.)

I was living and reporting in Turkey when Erdogan made his successful bid for power in 2002, upsetting the secular establishment and its gatekeeper, the military. At the time, I traveled to the Turkish heartland, to business-like cities like Kayseri, a conservative Anatolian stronghold far from the cafes and bars of Taksim Square. It became clear to me that many Turks there felt that their government had taken its secularism too far, oppressing people of faith, and that the AK was more representative of the “real Turks.” It also became apparent that my Europeanized friends back in Istanbul – also “real” Turks – were terrified that under Erdogan Turkey would eventually become an Islamic republic run in part by sharia law.

Few Turks want Istanbul to look more like Tehran. But even among those who do want a more Islamic flavor to public life are out protesting, because they’re frustrated with the Erdogan’s authoritarian leanings, which have come out in fuller force after 10 years in power. The sycamores of Taksim Square were just a symbol of that.

“This style of government was reflected in his reluctance to take appeals seriously – whether in the form of signature campaigns, pleas by public figures or a court injunction to stop the commencement of construction work in the park,” writes Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution in The National Interest. “Mr. Erdogan wants to be elected president when the post comes free in August 2014. And he has made no secret of his desire to boost the powers of the presidency ‘a la Turca’ as he put it, spurring accusations that what Erdogan really wants is to become a ‘Sultan.’”

Could it happen here? Israel’s leaders have to contend with a democracy backed by a strong judiciary and a feisty press. In comparison, Turkey tops the International Federation of Journalists’ list for the largest number of reporters under detention.

And Israel, with Finance Minister Yair Lapid bent on his “share the burden” bill – read, make ultra-Orthodox Jews do military service – is hardly in the grips of a government-driven religious campaign. On the contrary, with a judge recently ruling that the police should protect the Women of the Wall, this is a country in which Haredi Judaism, for the first time in many years, is sitting in the opposition.

In power instead, however, is Habayit Hayehudi. And that means a coalition partner whose raison d’etre is to nurture West Bank settlements and promote Jewish values at the expense of democratic ones. It means a continuation of an undeniable trend: significant growth in settlements over the Green Line – in terms of the space they take up, the sheer numbers of people living in settlements and recent moves to legalize outposts that had been recommended for evacuation. Compare this to the overall drop in housing starts in Israel, and we have a picture of a government that votes with its real estate decisions, not its political statements.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of asking Israelis to accept an austerity budget, but not get too excited when the prime minister – who like Erdogan has at times expressed interest in having presidential-style powers in the name of effective governance – pays $127,000 for a bed on his plane to London.

Perhaps the discontent over the above is not enough to spark another nationwide protest, a la the “tentifada” of 2011. But were I a politician in Jerusalem, I would be watching Istanbul closely and be aware of the possibility of uprooting our own set of sycamore trees without realizing where they’re planted.

Reuters