It’s a common mistake, and an entertaining one, to make comparisons between the Israeli and Turkish governments – to compare human-rights violations in each country; to compare the personal ambitions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to those of Recep Tayyip Erdogan; to see a parallel between Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority and Turkey’s war on its Kurdish minority, and to see a commonality in each leader’s attacks on the media.
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And as if it were vital for Israel to have a sister state, it’s too easy to conclude that Israel and Turkey are like two oxen pulling the same plow. Two nationalist states with fascist and racist tendencies, in which religion is an inseparable part of national identity. Two states that strive to cultivate a facade of democracy, or at least to portray their violations of democratic values as deriving from a strategy of self-defense against internal and external forces of evil.
In fact, however, there are vast differences between Israel and Turkey, and between Erdogan and Netanyahu. These lie not in the scope of the two leaders’ ambitions, but in the character of their respective publics.
Sunday’s constitutional referendum, which ended in a narrow victory for Erdogan (and which faces a legal challenge) highlighted one of the main differences: Turkey’s constitution gives citizens an active role in shaping the system of government and defining the state’s ideology, and not only during elections.
History teaches that Turks, in contrast to Israelis, are willing to fight, sometimes violently, against anyone they perceive as harming the moral foundations of the state. That’s what happened during the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013 and in the civil uprisings that preceded the military coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980. In Israel, no protest has ever risen to the level of an uprising, not the 400,000-strong demonstration following the massacres in Lebanon’s Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in 1982 and not the “cottage cheese protests” against the high cost of living in 2011.
Yet despite these differences, the Turkish referendum reveals one dangerous development that’s very similar to what’s happening in Israel. The concepts of patriotism and the nation have become identified with the leader, not with the relevant ideas. During Erdogan’s propaganda campaign in favor of the constitutional amendments, he strove to portray his opponents as traitors to the state and religion, genuine heretics; as supporters of terrorist organizations; as agents of Western countries that want to oust him; and as people who have forgotten what it means to be patriotic.
Anyone who isn’t willing to give Erdogan supreme power to run the state as he pleases is undermining the nation. Anyone who opposes his control of the judicial system is no patriot and abets terror. And anyone hostile to his ambition to reign without term limits, or to his takeover of the media, is seeking to harm Turkey. The vocabulary Erdogan uses against his rivals is very similar to that of Netanyahu and his associates, who identify love of the homeland with love of the leader.
Netanyahu’s delegitimization of the left and center-left are essentially no different from Erdogan’s delegitimization of the Kurds and the opposition. True, Israel isn’t yet arresting political leaders on charges of subversion or attempting a coup, but the ideological groundwork has already been laid. Just as Erdogan ousted leading liberals from his party, Netanyahu has pushed out anyone considered too moderate for his nationalist tastes, or who undermined the personality cult he has built around himself.
That is how one builds unassailable control. In this manner, Erdogan and Netanyahu have eliminated the possibility of a political heir and hollowed out any ideological or moral discussion that might present an alternative to the leader’s ideology, or to his monopoly over that ideology, of all content.
And this is where Netanyahu’s clear advantage over Erdogan lies: Not only does he not need to fear a public uprising, but he doesn’t need a constitution to ratify his exclusive control. He formulates the state’s values himself, without any need for a referendum, and he has already inculcated the distinction between enemy and patriot. Erdogan can only look on with envy.