Dozens of children in school uniforms file past the grim sarcophagus of Ataturk. They leave the shadowy room, staring in amazement at the two fearsome soldiers on guard at the entrance, and descend the broad staircase. Down below, they march single file toward another corner of the impressive mausoleum inaugurated in Ankara in 1953 in memory of the Father of the Turks. They will not leave before they have their picture taken in front of Ataturk's black Cadillac. It gleams, and so do the children's eyes.
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The children have come to the capital all the way from Istanbul, the city on the Bosporus, hundreds of miles away. There, on the eastern bank of the Golden Horn, stands a monument of another sort: the Mavi Marmara. This is also a kind of mausoleum; its purpose is to commemorate the nine people killed in the fatal 2010 clash with the Israel Navy. Several parts of the ship have been sent for repair, but the bullet holes remain. Commemoration requires it.
While the mausoleum in Ankara is intended to commemorate the founder of the Turkish republic, the ship where blood was spilled was intended to become a shrine connected directly to the present prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom his supporters describe as the greatest statesman in the republic since the death of its founder, while his critics see him as a neo-Ottoman sultan who suffers from hubris.
A recent visit to Turkey yielded a number of insights about the sultan/statesman and his attitude to the Jewish state.
First of all, Turkey does not really want reconciliation with Israel. That became clear during a conference sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Global Political Trends Center of Istanbul, which brought together Israeli and Turkish journalists to discuss relations between the two countries. The meeting that was organized for the journalists with Ibrahim Kalin, senior adviser to the prime minister, was canceled at the last minute. So was a meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Attempts to interview senior Turkish officials were rebuffed. Everyone had a "crowded schedule."
Some of the Turkish people who attended the conference sought to enlighten the Israeli participants, telling us that not only is Turkey pleased with the crisis in bilateral relations, but actually initiated it. The Mavi Marmara incident was planned, they said, and so was the seemingly spontaneous tongue-lashing Erdogan gave President Shimon Peres in Davos in 2009: "Be patient, the show is about to begin," a journalist from the Turkish daily Milliyet was told moments before.
Second, the Turkish participants argued, Israel needs Turkey much more than Turkey needs Israel. There is no think tank today that is not discussing the "Turkish model" and the possibility of exporting it to the newly liberated Arab countries. The Arab Spring is giving Turkey an opportunity to take a leadership position in the Middle East, while it leaves Israel in splendid isolation.
If Israel does not apologize for the Mavi Marmara and compensate the families of those killed, it can forget normalization of relations, Turkish officials and observers have repeatedly said. But they also say that if Israel would have allowed Turkey to intercede between it and the Palestinians, Israeli-Turkish relations would already have returned to normal. And that is the crux of the matter.
Erdogan is here to stay. When his term as prime minister ends, he intends to move into the president's residence. This he will do after he completes a process granting that institution wide-ranging powers. Health permitting, he could lead his country for another 15 years. With a little help from Allah, he hopes to lead the entire region.
But until that time, Erdogan will have to make a great effort just to continue leading Turkey itself. In his nightmares he sees the disintegration of Bashar Assad's regime leading to an independent Kurdish entity in Syria that could link up with the one that already exists in northern Iraq. And who knows; the winds of a Kurdish Spring could also blow over Turkey (and Iran ) and revive the vision of pan-Kurdish independence.
The statesman who would be sultan must make certain he does not lose his own state.