Following his tirade against Israeli President Shimon Peres at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become the darling of the Muslim masses. Indeed, from Istanbul to Gaza to Tehran, Erdogan has been praised for his “courageous stand” against “Israeli criminals,” with Turkish flags — once despised for representing a devoutly secular state — now being carried alongside Palestinian flags in Islamist demonstrations throughout the Middle East.
Naturally, Israel is hardly pleased with this turn of events. As David Hazony noted yesterday, Israel is considering downgrading its arms sales to Turkey, and Israeli tourism in Turkey has declined significantly. But it seems to me that Jerusalem is failing to see the bigger picture: in the aftermath of his very undiplomatic outburst, Erdogan is actually more valuable than ever.
Remember: in the past year, Israel has relied on Turkey for brokering indirect peace negotiations with Syria — negotiations that, among other things, aim to terminate Syria’s longtime partnership with Iran. Well, Erdogan’s newly found popularity throughout the Middle East might enable him to soften the political hit that Damascus would take if it abandoned Tehran under the terms of a Syrian-Israeli peace deal. Indeed, Erdogan can now play the role of the “honest broker” — which, in the Muslim world (and certain parts of the blogosphere), has always required that peacemakers have a solid history of Israel-bashing. For Israel, the ugly part — the Israel-bashing — has hopefully passed, creating an opening for Jerusalem to use Turkey’s sudden credibility within the Muslim world for pursuing peace with Syria more intensively.
Make no mistake: I found Erdogan’s outburst against Shimon Peres appalling, both for its hateful content and total lack of professionalism. Inevitably, it has encouraged radicals in their mindless vilification of Israel and contributed to the further entrenchment of Islamist bigotry. For this reason, Israel is right to stand up for itself in the short-run, as David has argued. But what’s done is done — and, in the long run, Israel might as well find a way to use this sorry episode to its strategic advantage.