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Turkey’s Dangerous Game in Gaza

There was a fiery exchange at yesterday’s State Department briefing between the department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, and AP reporter Matthew Lee, over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest verbal assault upon Israel. Here’s the key part of their back-and-forth:

LEE: You’re not telling us anything about… when the Turks come out, when the leaders of Turkey come out and say that Israel is engaged in acts of terrorism and you refuse to say that you don’t agree with that… maybe you do agree with that, that’s being silent.

NULAND: Matt, we have made a decision that we need to engage in our diplomatic work diplomatically, we have been very clear on where we stand on this. Which is that we don’t practice diplomacy from the podium. We have been very clear that Israel has the right of self-defense. Very clear that rockets continue to be fired and land on Israel. We’ve been very clear that we are working to get this conflict de-escalated. We have been very clear about our concern for the civilians and innocents on both sides who are getting caught in this…

LEE: And yet you won’t stick up for your ally Israel when the Turks, another one of your allies, say that they are engaged in terrorism in Gaza.

NULAND: We have been extremely clear about our concern for Israel security and the fact that Israel has the right to self-defense but I am not going to go further than that. 

LEE: Why can’t you say that you don’t agree with the Turks?

NULAND: Because I am not going to get into a public spitting match with allies on either side. We’re just not going to do that, okay?

In the end, irritated by Lee’s persistence, Nuland conceded as follows: “We of course agree that rhetorical attacks against Israel are not helpful at this moment.”

When the Syrian government last week condemned “the heinous atrocities committed by the enemy Israeli army against the Arab Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip,” there were howls of grim laughter. But when Erdogan says much the same, there is an embarrassed silence. “If we ignore what Erdogan says about Israel,” the logic here suggests, “perhaps we can persuade ourselves that he didn’t actually say anything at all.”

What Erdogan said, in fact, sounded suspiciously like a call for jihad against Israel. Addressing an Islamic conference in Istanbul, he labeled Israel as a “terrorist” state. He continued: “Israel is committing ethnic cleansing by ignoring peace in this region and violating international law. It is occupying the Palestinian territory step by step.” And then came the kicker: “Sooner or later, Israel will answer for the blood it has shed so far.”

Why, then, is Turkey being treated differently? In large part, it’s because Western policymakers have a habit of ignoring inflammatory rhetoric when it comes from states that are regarded as allies. Turkey is a member of NATO; it continues to seek full membership of the European Union; and for the last century or so, its government has been informed by an uncompromisingly secular set of values. One speech doesn’t change any of that.

Except, of course, that it’s not just one speech. Under Erdogan’s rule, the long-established alliance between Turkey and Israel has crumbled. It was the Turkish Islamist Foundation, the IHH, that organized the flotilla to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in May 2010, during which Israeli naval commandoes attempting a peaceful landing on one of the ships were set upon with iron bars and knives. Earlier this month, a Turkish court began the trial, in absentia, of four senior IDF officers–Generals Gabi Ashkenazi, Amos Yadlin and Avishai Lev, and Admiral Eliezer Marom–for, among other indictments, “inciting murder through cruelty or torture.”

In that same period, Turkey has arguably become Hamas’s most important ally, insofar as few other Muslim states enjoy as much political clout in the west. In September 2011, as Erdogan embarked on a tour of Arab countries, his portrait hung alongside hundreds of Turkish flags deployed throughout the Gaza Strip. And this week, Erdogan announced that he plans to send his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Gaza. As one Turkish outlet reported, this decision followed Erdogan’s public criticism of the Arab League “for not taking effective steps in the face of the Israeli aggression against Palestinians.”

There are those who argue that Turkey’s hostile stance toward Israel, far from boosting its leadership ambitions in the Islamic world, marginalizes it instead. Writing in the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the Israel academic Ehud Toledano observed:

Beyond statements of harsh condemnation against Israel and enthusiastic support for Hamas, Erdogan and Davutoglu can do practically nothing…Without the diplomatic capability to talk to Jerusalem, and having lost all trust within Israeli political circles, the Turkish prime minister can only sit in Cairo and watch how President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt mediates a cease-fire and negotiates a long-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas, with Egyptian guarantees, to boot. You need to talk to both sides if you want to be able to do that – Morsi, a president from the Muslim Brotherhood no less, can; Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey, cannot.

There is another interpretation, however. Firstly, that Turkey now believes that leading political and diplomatic resistance to Israel is a better fit for its neo-Ottoman foreign policy. Secondly, that Turkish leaders have been persuaded that combative rhetoric will fuel Western anxieties about the country’s radicalization, and that consequently the Americans and the Europeans will become more amenable toward Ankara than they already are.

If that is indeed Turkey’s game, we should not be playing along. Reporters attending Nuland’s next State Department briefing might, therefore, want to seek additional clarification.


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