BACKGROUND: Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP Government has adopted a more proactive approach to foreign policy, compared to the cautious approach taken by its predecessors. The government’s leading policy mantra has been the “zero problem” policy with Turkey’s neighbors. To a certain extent, this policy has been successful. Turkey has stepped in to improve relations with Syria and Iran, while Ankara has stepped in to help neighbors sort out some of their regional problems. Hence, Ankara has sought to play the role of a mediator between Iran and the West, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Syria and Israel, and in the recent Russian-Georgian war.
As regards the conflict in the Middle East, the AKP government has for some time sought to take on a role as a mediator between Israel and the Arabs. This ambition has coexisted uneasily with a growing level of public criticism of Israel. Hence when an Israeli rocket strike killed Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Israel and subsequently invited the recently elected Hamas leaders to Turkey, ignoring Israeli and Western protests. On the other hand, Ankara began facilitating talks between Israel and Syria. Likewise, during the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza, Tayyip Erdogan was among the world leaders most bitterly critical of Israel; meanwhile, Erdogan tried to carve out a role among the various mediation initiatives. Erdogan visited Syria, Jordan, and Egypt in order to sustain a ceasefire, but failed to reach tangible results.
Indeed, the tension between Erdogan’s diplomatic ambitions and his public rhetoric is beginning to appear untenable. Speaking to a recent Party group meeting, he spoke in harsh terms about Israel in general and about Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni personally. His statements included allusions to God punishing Israel for inhuman actions that could lead to its self-destruction, while Erdogan said that Barak and Livni will be “punished by history”.
IMPLICATIONS: Erdogan’s words need to be analyzed from various perspectives. Connecting the Israeli offensive to the coming elections in Israel and accusing Israeli leaders of electioneering, Erdogan inadvertently provides a hint about the reasons of his own statements. The upcoming March local elections have generated growing political tension in Turkey. Politically, the AKP seems to have crushed the Turkish center-right. However, the Felicity Party – which shares with the AKP an origin in the Welfare and Virtue parties of a decade ago – continues to preserve its dynamism both in terms of ideology and cadre. When Virtue was closed down by the Constitutional Court in June 2001, it split into the moderate Islamist AKP and the more orthodox Islamist Felicity party (Saadet Partisi, SP).
Having spent half a decade on the margins of Turkey’s political system, the SP has increased its activities following the election of Numan Kurtulmus as the leader. This appears to disturb Erdogan. Under the leadership of Kurtulmus, it was the SP that organized a meeting to protest the Israel’s recent offensive towards Gaza in Istanbul in which approximately 300,000 demonstrators participated. Understanding the mindset of the voters, and the slide towards Islamic conservatism that Erdogan himself has contributed to during his tenure in power, Erdogan does not want to be outflanked on the religious right, losing over the most Orthodox Islamic conservative electorate to the SP.
Here, the Constitutional Court’s warning to the AKP, issued this past Fall, plays an important role. The Court found that the AKP had become the focal point of anti-secular activities, a ruling that effectively prevents the party from using religious references or pushing its Islamist agenda openly, for fear of the Court re-opening the case and closing the party down. The ruling in effect drew the political borders of the AKP’s behavior, at least for a time. In such an environment, Erdogan appears to be using the conflict in the Middle East, which has transformed into a Jewish–Muslim conflict, to influence the conservative voters in Turkey.
To this apparent need for populist rhetoric should be added the number of recent corruption scandals involving AKP elites, and the increasingly serious economic crisis. Both have begun to cause uneasiness among the AKP leadership. The Gaza offensive and its impact on the Turkish public have hence changed the agenda in favor of the AKP, something Erdogan managed to utilize astutely.
The arrests of leading secularist figures that played key roles in the “February 28” process, meaning the 1997 process that ended the Welfare party’s time in government, should be understood in the same light. The timing of the arrests in the Ergenekon investigation, clearly masterminded by political rather than judicial actors, appear to be geared toward strengthening the AKP ahead of local elections. The Government, of course, insists that this issue is the business of judicial institutions, it is obvious in every detail that the Government itself is in the business. Erdogan even once referred to himself as “the prosecutor” in the Ergenekon case.
While Erdogan’s own electioneering is clearly at play here, it is also increasingly obvious that the AKP leadership feels comfortable with the leaders of Middle Eastern countries and movements, on account of their shared Islamic codes. It is telling that Erdogan’s recent trip to Brussels was the first in four years, and that for the past several years the Foreign Minister has concomitantly served as EU top negotiator – only in early 2009 was a special negotiator separate from the Foreign Minister appointed. While this suggests the lack of interest in the EU, the AKP leadership has spent substantial efforts and time welcoming leaders from the Muslim world, including isolated figures such as Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
What will this mean for Turkish-Israeli relations? Their basis was laid under previous governments, and rests on the military cooperation between the two countries, Israel’s support to Turkey in terms of defense industry, and the Israeli lobbies’ pro-Turkish stance in the international arena. However, the political elites that had formulated and implemented ties with Israel in Turkey have been marginalized. The secular establishment’s most powerful institutions that support this relationship, that is specifically the Turkish Armed Forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are also in the process of marginalization.
The formulation of Turkish foreign policy is no longer the domain of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Instead, it has been eclipsed by a group of conservative intellectuals under the leadership of Erdogan’s main foreign policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoglu. Identified as the “neo-Ottomanists” in the west, the architects of this policy are gradually transforming Turkey’s western-oriented foreign policy. Given the West’s apparent support or indifference toward the AKP, the political and military secular elite – which have so far defended Turkey’s western-oriented foreign policy – started to take on a firm nationalistic stance distancing themselves from West. One of the principal reasons is their perception that the AKP’s coming to power in Turkey was made possible by the efforts of western countries. That anti-western stance is in turn heavily counter-productive, as it paradoxically strengths the hand of AKP in international platforms.
CONCLUSIONS: Firing his harsh criticism towards Israel, Prime Minister Erdogan may primarily be making an investment in the upcoming local elections. But a harsher tone toward Israel cannot be seen in isolation from the Islamic conservative ideology that is spreading in the country, which Erdogan encouraged and may now be entrapped by. While rising the populist wave internally, Erdogan appears to be trying to find a solution that avoids significant harm to Turkish-Israeli relations on the external front. Given its regional isolation, Israel is unlikely to want to lose Turkey, no matter the language used by the Turkish Prime Minister. Whether pro-Israeli lobbies in the U.S. will draw the same conclusion remains to be seen.
The AKP’s behavior in the Gaza conflict is illustrative of a growing importance accorded to Turkey’s Eastern vocation, primarily directed toward the Islamic world. As the West is itself alienated from the Middle East, it tends to evaluate this drift in Turkey as an opportunity, an impression the AKP is eager to promote – hence, perhaps, the number of abortive mediation initiatives. The point ignored by the West and everyone else is the extent of the transformation taking place in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy, and its long-term implications.