By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
I recently heard one of Israel’s leading national security experts opine that when it comes to the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East, Jerusalem’s strategic interest lies in maintaining Turkey as an effective counterweight to Iran, despite the torrid experience of dealing with the country’s dictatorial leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during the last decade.
That expert’s view seems correct to me. Turkey maintains diplomatic relations with Israel as well as bilateral economic relations worth an annual $2.7 billion to Turkish businesses, not forgetting the mutually beneficial Mediterranean natural gas contracts now waiting to be signed. Iran, by contrast, wants to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Iran has the potential to weaponize its nuclear program; Turkey’s civilian nuclear program doesn’t begin construction of its first power plant until next year. And as a Sunni Muslim state, Turkey, like Israel, is a natural partner for those Sunni Arab states facing the rise of Iranian power from Syria to the Gulf.
None of that should mean, however, that Turkey can be regarded as just another more-or-less reliable friend of Israel—like, for example, those countries in Africa that are developing warm bilateral ties with the Jewish state, but have historically supported the Arab position at the United Nations.
Turkey’s attitude to Israel is poisoned by both ideological animus and strategic jockeying. The fact that Turkey is, unquestionably, a preferable alternative to Iran—it’s more accurately described as a “choice” in the Henry Ford/Model T sense of that word—shouldn’t blind us to those realities.
Listen to Erdoğan’s rants against Judaism and Israel—instances of which I and others have documented over the years more times than we care to remember—and there is an unmistakeable loathing simmering. Erdoğan has stoked hatred against Jews by employing language about global Jewish power and Israel’s supposed bloodlust that is straight from the playbook of classical anti-Semitism.
Nor is Turkey’s foreign policy any more encouraging. Already vulnerable to both nationalist and Islamic forms of chauvinism, Erdoğan’s Turkey under has become a destabilizing force in the Middle East. It wages a brutal war against the Kurdish minority, whose goal is simply independence—not the destruction of Turkey as a sovereign state. It is closely aligned with the Palestinians of Hamas and with the Muslim Brotherhood in general. It has dropped its opposition to the Syrian tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, remaining on his Damascus throne. It has enabled, through illicit oil sales and other measures, the financing of Islamic State’s reign of terror through Syria and Iraq. It continues to bully other countries who seek to commemorate the genocide of the Armenians under Ottoman rule.
None of that should leave a Jewish-majority state feeling particularly secure. But if Israel and its friends are still conflicted about Turkey, it’s because they’re aware that it wasn’t always as bad as it is now.
As Erdoğan has cemented control, the modern Turkey known to Western politicians and business executives—socially liberal, politically repressive, militarily powerful, defiantly secular, deeply nationalistic—has been shunted aside by Islamist values and neo-Ottoman imperatives. But the older version of Turkey sticks around because, unlike Iran, Turkey is much more globalized, and historically an ally of the West, and the country is therefore deeply embedded into international institutions. Nothing symbolizes that state of affairs more than Turkey’s status as the only Muslim member of NATO.
Judging by Erdoğan’s current behavior, it seems he wants nothing more than to throw off the shackles of globalization—populism, Ottoman-style. To understand what that looks like, examine Erdoğan’s antics with regard to fellow NATO member Holland.
Last week, with Dutch voters preparing for a March 15 election that has placed security and immigration issues at the heart of their national debate, Erdoğan dispatched two of his own ministers to the Netherlands. The emissaries planned to speak at Turkish immigrant rallies in support of Erdoğan’s constitutional referendum April 16—which will, assuming he wins, massively concentrate political power in the president’s office.
Justifiably, given the potential for public disorder, the authorities in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam withdrew a permit for a rally at which Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was due to speak. For its part, the Dutch government denied landing rights to the plane carrying Çavuşoğlu. Erdoğan’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, also traveling to Rotterdam, was escorted to the German border by Dutch police while an angry, chanting crowd of Erdoğan supporters gathered outside the Turkish consulate in the city.
Once across the border, Kaya began tweeting about Dutch authorities’ “fascist practices”—rich, indeed, coming from the representative of a regime that has purged the universities, the army, the civil service and the media since the murky “coup” against Erdoğan last year.
But there is nobody rivaling Erdoğan when it comes to invoking history as a form of abuse against his opponents. Erdoğan’s tendency to bash other nations and ethno-religious groups—particularly Jews—with painful episodes from their own history was the main focus of an interview he gave to a prominent Israeli journalist last November, when he defended his drawing of a moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and Israel. (His precise words: “I don’t approve of what Hitler did, and neither do I approve of what Israel has done. When it’s a question of so many people dying, it’s inappropriate to ask who was the more barbarous.”)
Not inappropriate, apparently, is calling the Dutch “Nazis” and declaring that “they have nothing to do with the civilized world.” Such comments have left many Dutch citizens wondering why—if their country is so awful—400,000 Turks have chosen to make their homes there. And when they see Turkish newspaper headlines screaming that 48,000 Dutch soldiers count for little against these same 400,000 Turks, it’s no wonder that growing numbers of Dutch voters feel that there is a civilizational threat in their midst.
As the Turkish referendum approaches, the gap between Erdoğan’s rhetoric and the reality he is shaping is narrowing. What Erdoğan imposed upon the Netherlands during the last week amounted to a violation of Dutch national sovereignty, with Turkish ministers attempting to enter the country in spite of bans, and pro-regime media outlets brandishing the Turkish presence in Holland as a weapon. A dangerous precedent has been set, and any European countries with significant Turkish populations—especially France, Germany, Austria and Belgium—are now fair game. What started with Erdoğan’s referendum won’t end with it.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.