When Israel launched Operation Pillar of Cloud, Prime Minister Erdoğan initially kept silent. This lasted for a couple of days, and when he finally opened his mouth, what came out was not pretty. First he deemed what Israel was doing to be a “massacre” and then he accused the Israeli government of shooting Palestinians for the sole purpose of winning an election, and finally moved on to calling Israel a terrorist state and denying that Israel is in any way acting in self defense. The real piece de resistance came yesterday, when Erdoğan accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, reiterated his view that Israel has no right to self defense against Hamas rockets, and stated that Hamas firing rockets at civilians is legitimate resistance. In the process, he made sure to question the UN’s legitimacy and insult the U.S. as well. All in all, a banner performance.
I was all set to write a post about what this stance has cost Turkey in terms of its influence as a regional actor, and as I sat down to write it last night, I saw that the New York Times had already said what I was going to say (not to mention they gave a big shout out to friend of O&Z Aaron Stein, whose excellent new blog can be found here). The relevant quotes from the Times:
But by Tuesday, Turkey seemed to indicate that while its strident anti-Israel posture has been popular on the Arab street, it has been at its own expense, undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict…
Turkey’s stature in the Middle East has soared in recent years as it became a vocal defender of Palestinian rights and an outspoken critic of Israel and pursued a foreign policy whose intent was to become a decisive power in regional affairs. But as Gaza and Israel were once again shooting at each other, Turkey found that it had to take a back seat to Egypt on the stage of high diplomacy. The heavy lifting unfolded in Cairo under the inexperienced hand of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, whose political roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist movement that helped found Hamas.
“Egypt can talk with both Hamas and Israel,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of international politics at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. “Turkey, therefore, is pretty much left with a position to support what Egypt foresees, but nothing more.”
Turkey finds itself largely shut out of the central and defining Arab-Israeli conflict. On Monday, Mr. Erdogan helped seal that reality speaking at an Islamic conference in Istanbul when he called Israel a “terrorist state.” At a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday that was broadcast on Turkish television, he said Israel was guilty of “ethnic cleansing.” Moreover, Mr. Erdogan’s stance continues to play well with his domestic constituency of conservative Muslims, making a rapprochement with Israel even more difficult, even if he were interested in winning back Turkey’s seat at the negotiation table, said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University.
Let me add two points to what is a very good analysis. First, it’s not just that Turkey has cost itself when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu’s head over heels rush to damn Israel at every juncture has actually contributed to Turkey losing its foreign policy direction more generally. Whereas Turkey under the AKP initially aspired to the role of being a mediator in all sorts of areas, whether it was between Israel and Arab states, the U.S. and Iran, or the Europe and the wider Middle East, at some point Turkey decided that it would rather try and throw its weight around on a host of issues. While this might have enhanced Turkey’s influence had it worked out, it quite obviously didn’t, and so now not only does Turkey appear impotent when it comes to Israel or pressuring the Assad regime in Syria, it has also lost its credibility as a valuable interlocutor. Turkey no longer can be the party that facilitates back channel negotiations between Israel and Hamas, or the state that attempt to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war. Erdoğan’s bile toward Israel is only one manifestation of this, and Turkey’s casting aside the role that it had once claimed has led to a loss of influence, rather than greater influence, on larger regional issues. One look at Davutoğlu telling reporters today that a ceasefire was about to be announced while Israel and Hamas continued to exchange blows and no ceasefire materialized provided a microcosm for how the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s power to get things done has waned.
Second, it’s not just Israel that Erdoğan went off on, but on the U.S. as well, and on that front Erdoğan is truly playing a dangerous game. The mood in Congress right now is not terribly hospitable to Turkey, and Ankara has been banking on the close relationship between President Obama and Erdoğan and the influence that Turkey wields with the White House and the State Department. Instead of recognizing that Turkey’s high profile right now is entirely dependent on the executive branch and laying off, Erdoğan decided to direct his ire at the U.S. despite conversations with Obama in recent days about how Turkey can play a productive role in ending the fighting in Gaza, implicitly criticizing the U.S. by blasting the anonymous “they” who claim Israel is acting in self defense. In employing increasingly unhinged rhetoric about Israel, Erdoğan also forced the State Department to publicly chastise Turkey and to reveal that the U.S. has done so in private as well. Anyone who thinks that all this is not harming Turkey’s status here in the U.S. is either being willfully delusional or is too block headed to see what is glaringly obvious.
It might be good domestic politics in Turkey to foam at the mouth whenever the subject of Israel comes up, and Erdoğan clearly relishes the opportunity to bash Israel whenever he can for a combination of some principled and some cynically self-serving reasons. It probably feels good to do so, but at the same time it is clearly harming Turkish interests and Turkish prestige, putting the U.S. in an awkward and difficult position, harming Turkey’s defense posture, and making the prospects of an Israeli apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara ever more remote. Turks of all political stripes are beginning to realize this, and if Erdoğan is the last person to see the writing on the wall, it is not going to resound to Turkey’s benefit. Let’s hope that the prime minister wakes up to this reality sooner rather than later, since the country that is suffering as a result of his verbal barbs is his own.