Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s big mouth has been his trademark for a long time, and everyone around him and in his government knows this quite well. “He can’t control the words he utters,” said Meral Aksener, the woman who's challenging Erdogan in the presidential race.
Aksener, 61, didn’t necessarily mean Erdogan’s statements about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “committing genocide” or about Israel, which he called a “terrorist nation.” She was referring to a matter that worries Turkey much more.
Erdogan said in an interview that if he's reelected president he'll tighten his oversight over the economy. Tighten oversight is code for not letting Turkey’s central bank go wild on interest rates. “The interest rate mafia,” as Erdogan calls it, includes the central bank and economists who insist on keeping interest rates high and are unwilling to adopt Erdogan’s economic theory, which requires lower interest rates to stoke investment.
One might think there's no connection between Turkish interest rates and the poison Erdogan pours on Israel, but if you browse through his calendar you’ll find the link on June 24, the day of the presidential and parliamentary elections. Erdogan has continued with the nationalist line he adopted in 2015 when he ended the negotiations with the Kurds over a reconciliation.
In his nationalist campaign, not only is Israel an appropriate target but so are the United States and the European Union, which he attacks so he can present himself as the president of a major power who’s not afraid to trample diplomatic and international relations to boost his image as an all-powerful leader. In fact, this isn’t only an image; he’s actually implementing this strategy at home.
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For example, he called the Turkish ambassador in Washington back to Ankara and warned U.S. President Donald Trump that “history would not forgive him for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, which caused the eruption in Gaza.”
He also attacked Germany, Austria and the Netherlands for not letting him conduct his election campaign among Turks living in those countries. As far as he’s concerned, Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are a single package of evil, and the events in Gaza are just props for his real reasons for being furious with both countries. Israel has transferred the foundation of its military cooperation from Turkey to the Turks’ traditional rival Greece and Eastern European countries, and plans to send natural gas to Europe via Greece. All this impedes Erdogan’s dream to turn Turkey into an international center for selling oil and gas.
Troubles with Trump
Erdogan’s open account with the United States is much more complicated. If at first he thought that Trump's appointments made would give him a free hand in Syria and Trump would abandon U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds, he quickly realized that Trump actually sees the Kurds as crucial allies. If Erdogan thought Trump would agree to extradite his nemesis, Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan has accused of planning the failed July 2016 coup, then this hope died too.
Erdogan is sure he had a winning hand against the United States, the threat to leave NATO. But Trump upset the game by moving the embassy to Jerusalem and leaving the Iranian nuclear deal that Erdogan supported fully. And Trump is in no hurry to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Thus Erdogan can no longer be certain that he has a winning hand.
Israel’s crimes, according to Erdogan, are much more than the deaths in Gaza. Erdogan’s problem is that Israel has consistently prevented Turkey from participating in the development of the West Bank and especially Gaza, and not only during Netanyahu’s tenure. After the reconciliation between the two countries, Erdogan believed he could take part in the rebuilding of Gaza, strengthen Hamas, gradually wear down the Israeli blockade and erode the status of Egypt, which he views as an enemy.
Israel and Egypt had different ideas, and even though Israel agreed to Turkey building a hospital in Gaza, the dream soon faded. The tight military cooperation between Israel and Egypt in the war against the Islamic State in Sinai and against Hamas removed every other minor player in Gaza such as Turkey and Qatar.
Turkey versus Saudi
Even though it looked as if Turkey was penetrating the circle of Arab countries after the death of Saudi King Abdullah and the crowning of Salman, who quickly established a Sunni coalition against Iran that included both Turkey and Egypt, this too passed quickly. Large cracks appeared in the Sunni coalition when Turkey increased its coordination with Iran and Russia in the Syrian war, built a Turkish base in Qatar – which is being boycotted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and unconditionally supported the Muslim Brotherhood, even though the organization is listed as a terror group in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Turkey also funded rival militias to those supported by Saudi Arabia in Syria, and with Russia and Iran excluded Riyadh from any diplomatic initiative led by Russia in the region. No love has been lost in the Saudi kingdom for someone who views himself as the reviver of the Ottoman sultanate.
“We will never recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and we will never let it be subjugated to Israel,” Erdogan said this week. He has promoted a mass protest for Friday in Istanbul over the events in Gaza, the same day he’ll head an emergency conference of the Council of Islamic States in which he’ll demand “courageous decisions” against Trump’s decisions and the Israeli “terrorism” in Gaza.
This is the only international forum Erdogan has left after the UN Security Council failed – because of the United States – to pass a resolution condemning Israel. The United Nations not only opposes the Turkish occupation of the Kurdish region of Afrin in northern Syria, it also says Turkey isn’t letting many of the 140,000 displaced persons from the region return home.
Even worse, according to Turkish journalists, Turkey is transferring large numbers of refugees, many of them Palestinians, to Afrin so as to change the city’s demography, which was mostly Kurdish. The Arab settlement enterprise Turkey is running in Afrin has two more principles that look as if they were copied from Israeli policy. A council was established in Afrin of local notables who are subject to the governor of Turkey’s Hatay Province, and even though Turkey has declared that it doesn’t intend to remain in Afrin forever, this week the deputy foreign minister said Turkey would never return Afrin to the Assad regime. “Afrin belongs to the Syrian people,” he said.
Given the Syrian civil war, it’s hard to see how the Syrian people will establish a different government soon and be able to receive Afrin back from Turkey.
The question is which issue will decide the Turkish elections: the overall economy, the plunging Turkish lira, unemployment, or foreign policy. Actually, this question is only theoretical, because Erdogan has no real challenger, and after June 24, he won’t have to argue with anyone or prove anything – at least not for the next five years.