Turkey’s next leader? Same man, same double standards

jc-2aThis year will be an excellent one for Turkey’s ties with Israel. The two countries are projected to trade a record $6bn (£3.6bn) in goods and services. A quarter of a million Israelis will visit Turkey, the highest number in five years. And this month, 13 daily Istanbul-Tel Aviv flights will facilitate this burgeoning traffic of business and tourism.

It is a remarkably healthy relationship for two countries that have barely spoken to each other in four years. Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv and expelled Israel’s own envoy following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine people died in an IDF raid on a flotilla of ships bound for blockaded Gaza. Despite an Israeli apology, diplomatic ties have not been restored.

The biggest obstacle is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s fiery prime minister, who may win enough votes this weekend to become the country’s next president. He has made the situation in Gaza a central part of his campaign, appealing to the Sunni Muslim voter base that is almost large enough to elect him outright in the first round.

“Those who curse Hitler day and night have now surpassed Hitler in their barbarism,” he told a crowd in the Black Sea port of Ordu last month. He has since refused to withdraw the comment, telling CNN: “We don’t endorse what Hitler did, but we don’t accept the oppression, massacre and genocide conducted by Israel either.”

This is a message designed to rally his Anatolian voters, who rarely encounter Israel in their daily lives.

There was a call to boycott Israeli goods, but it petered out because few could find anything Israeli on their shelves. The majority of Israeli tourists visit Turkey’s south coast, where Mr Erdoğan’s party is not strong.

For some, the words are not just seductive electioneering but a candid look into Mr Erdoğan’s thinking. His foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, wants to build a sphere of Muslim influence and has described Israel as a “geopolitical tumour” that does not fit this vision, Marmara University’s Behlül Özkan says. Turkey’s failure to influence events in Egypt, Iraq and Syria show how frustrated a policy it has become.

All the while, the prime minister has permitted a “double relationship” whereby business with Israel grows tremendously fast. Trade – including Turkish food and textiles, Israeli electronics and defence equipment – has nearly quadrupled since he took office a decade ago. Turkey even provides the IDF with boots; some may have been on the ground in Gaza.

The government is keeping the door open to further ties, too. Only this week, the energy minister, Taner Yıldız, said there were no plans for a pipeline to carry Israeli gas to Europe over Turkey, but added they would reconsider when things improve in Gaza.

Matters like these are rarely scrutinised in Turkey. An opposition MP posed a parliamentary question over reports that the prime minister’s son runs a firm that trades with Israel. But before the answer is due, Mr Erdoğan will probably be elected president. That will sustain the double relationship.

Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle, 14 August 2014.