Being Erdogan Means Never Having to Say Sorry

What's preventing Israel and Turkey properly reconciling is Erdogan's insistence that Turkey’s honor be defended at all costs; the same privilege doesn't extend to Israel, though.

Aaron Magid
Aaron Magid
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Aaron Magid
Aaron Magid

ANKARA, TURKEY - Refusing to step down as the ongoing corruption scandal rocks Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan claimed that “foreign powers” have conspired against Turkey, with the pro-government newspaper The Star asserted that Israel's Mossad was behind the plot. Sad but true: The consistent blaming of Israel for its domestic woes highlights Turkey’s disinterest in normalization with Israel despite its promises to the contrary.

At the end of President Obama’s trip to Israel in March - after substantial American pressure -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for Israel’s errors in the raid on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 that led to the deaths of nine Turks. A week later, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu attested that all three of Turkey’s conditions for normalization with Israel had been achieved: Apology, compensation, and easing of the embargo on Gaza. “Turkey’s basic demands have been met. We got what we wanted,” declared Davutoglu. But still, the reconciliation has not happened.

Despite Netanyahu’s apology, which took substantial political will among his hawkish base, Erdogan has relentlessly vilified Israel. Erdogan blamed Israel for the recent ouster of President Morsi in Egypt: “Who is behind this? Israel is. We have evidence in our hands.” Turkish media mocked his so-called 'evidence': A panel discussion with a French Jewish philosopher who holds no position in the Israeli or French governments. Turkish Deputy PM Besir Atalay blamed Diaspora Jewry for the unfavorable international media coverage of this summer’s protests: “There are those who envy us… you saw the Jewish Diaspora… You saw the attitude of the foreign press to the Gezi Park events, how quickly they were bought.”

It will be difficult for the AKP to continue its harsh rhetoric towards Israel and then suddenly justify to his conservative base why he supports normalization. Dr. Michael Koplow, an expert on Israeli-Turkish relations, says that the corruption crisis makes it more improbable for reconciliation, since normalization with Israel would be a political liability for Erdogan. Another factor reducing the chances of resolving the conflict is the weakening of U.S.-Turkish ties, as America has pushed hard for this to happen.

Turkish sources claim that the reason for the delay in normalization is that Israel has not fulfilled its promises of compensation for the Gaza flotilla. But Arad Nir, Foreign Editor for Israel’s Channel 2 News and a strong proponent of Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, clarified that Netanyahu has offered a $30 million package. While Haaretz reported last month, quoting Israeli sources, that Turkey had relaxed its compensation demands, and the sides were close to an agreement, Turkish diplomatic officials quickly rejected this report. Nir contends, “The argument about the financial sum is nothing but a pretext for the Turkish government's unwillingness to end the crisis.”

Deputy PM Arinc has old Turkish journalists that Ankara requires Israel to admit that the payment is for “its wrongful acts,” an assertion that Jerusalem vigorously rejects. This claim directly contradicts Erdogan’s statement in March that he “fully accepted Israel’s apology.”

In my conversations with a Turkish diplomatic official who insisted on anonymity, he stressed that even after a compensation agreement, Israel would need to ease the Gaza blockade in order to meet Turkish demands. When I spoke to an Israeli diplomatic official, he states quite the opposite position: That there is no connection between Israel’s security situation in Gaza and its ties with Turkey. Given the escalation of violence on the Gaza border, it seems highly unlikely that Israel will dramatically change its policy towards Gaza. Interestingly, Ankara does not make similar demands on Egypt, despite Cairo tightening its siege around Gaza.

In the Turkey: Israel relationship, there seems to be a clear double standard in terms of who must apologize for what, when undiplomatic incidents occur. When Israel's Deputy FM Danny Ayalon stage-managed a humiliation of the Turkish envoy in 2010, seating him below his host and against diplomatic protocol, Israel quickly acquiesced to the official apology that Turkey demanded. But when I asked the Turkish diplomatic official about the propriety of Erdogan blaming Israel for Egypt's coup, he said there was no need to exaggerate the significance of the Turkish PM's comment. Naturally, Erdogan refused to apologize to Israel for his outrageous claim. Turkey’s honor must be defended at all costs, but Israel is not afforded such privileges.

Professor Mensur Akgun, Director of the Global Trends Center at Istanbul Kultur University, emphasized that domestic politics are an important factor behind the continued tension. “The easiest option is always to blame others and the Zionists are a very easy target, so you can relieve all of your responsibilities,” Akgun said. He clarified that Turkey’s foreign policy falls prey to Erdogan’s improvisations; “he is a victim of his own rhetoric,” instead of following national interests.

Israel and Turkey have many reasons to strengthen ties. Both countries have shared interests in preventing the further rise of Al-Qaida in Syria. A resolution with Israel would allow Turkey to once again play a leading intermediary role in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, a sign of Turkey’s regional importance. Removing tension with Israel would improve Turkey’s ties with America.

With so many national interests supporting reconciliation, it is unfortunate that Erdogan has chosen to maintain, if not ratchet up, the tension with Israel to score domestic political points. Even after the fall of dictators across the region, blaming Israel for your country's problems is the one trope that persists. Some things never change.

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