By his remarks on February 27, 2013 at a conference under the auspices of the United Nations, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, founder of the partly Islamist and partly secular, Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in 2001 and Prime Minister of Turkey since 2002, disgraced himself, his country, and the participants of the international meeting he was addressing when he spoke of Zionism "as a crime against humanity." The critical commentary on his infamous remarks, as expressed by officials of both the United States and the United Nations, was not only a long-needed response to callous condemnations of the State of Israel but also suggested that American foreign policy on Middle Eastern affairs may be more unambiguous about the rhetoric and actions of those hostile to Israel than previously envisioned.
At the 5th Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations held in February 2013 in Vienna a meeting, ostensibly organized to discuss "Responsible Leadership in Dialog and Diversity," was supposed to discuss the right to freedom of religion. Prime Minister Erdogan expressed concern with what he called "disrespectful" attitudes to Muslims in certain countries. But in his speech which purportedly called for tolerance and in a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership, he revealed, inadvertently or otherwise, a prejudice and application of a double standard regarding respect towards Israel by remarking, "As with Zionism, antisemitism, and Fascism, it becomes unavoidable that Islamophobia must be regarded as a crime against humanity."
The UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), a relatively unknown body, was established in 2005 under the auspices of the UN at the initiative of the governments of Spain and Turkey, then as now under the leadership of Erdogan.
It is therefore doubly troubling that Erdogan, as well as disgracing himself, should have done so under the rubric of an organization he helped form and which was intended to improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions.
Erdogan's criticism of "Zionism" was not pertinent to any particular action or hypothetical action of the State of Israel but it was outrageous in equating the concept of Zionism, on which Israel was founded, with the unsavory proclamations of antisemitism and Fascism. His remarks were historically inaccurate, morally offensive, and politically damaging both for relations with the United States and for peaceful negotiation of conflict in the Middle East. He ought to have been aware that Zionism is a movement or ideology based on the principle that the Jewish people have a right to live in a state in the Biblical "Land of Israel."
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, its relationship with Turkey for over 50 years has been uneven but on the whole cordial, particularly in military cooperation and on security issues. Among other things, the Israeli air force was allowed to practice in Turkish air space, and Israeli technicians provided instructions to Turkish pilots. The relationship was mildly euphoric as an example of a Muslim country having a cordial and positive association with the Jewish State.
With the ascent of Erdogan to power that harmonious relationship has changed for the worse. Some form of military cooperation and trade between the two countries has continued. Israeli companies helped modernize the Turkish air force, and agreements were reached on a number of military subjects until they were suspended in 2011 when Turkey discontinued a considerable number of contracts. In the same year Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador.
Many of the latter actions stem from Turkish antagonism to the Israeli action in May 2010 in preventing the so-called humanitarian flotilla from breaking the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. Turkey demanded an apology for Israeli actions against the vessels, particularly the Mavi Marmara, and for the death of eight Turks and one American of Turkish descent. The Turkish government left unsaid that it had approved the flotilla organized by Turkish Islamists and a civil society organization.
But Erdogan has not left unsaid his continuing criticism of Israel. In November 2012 he accused Israel of state terrorism, of its attempts at "ethnic cleansing," of its "massacre of children in Gaza," and of further violations of international law. He condemned the Israel air strike on February 3, 2013 on several Syrian targets, including a biological weapons research center which was in danger of falling into the hands of terrorists, and a convoy carrying advanced anti-aircraft defense systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Irrationality was carried to new heights when Erdogan's officials suggested that because Syria had not retaliated against Israel, there was collaboration and a conspiracy between President Assad and Israel.
At the 2013 meeting in Vienna, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remained silent after Erdogan's speech as he had been silent in December 2009 at the Durban II Conference when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran called for the elimination of Israel, though after the fact he called the comment unacceptable. Similarly, his attitude changed as the contents of Erdogan's speech were made public by UN Watch and became criticized in the United States. Mr. Ban then censured the speech for its "hurtful and divisive comments" which were not only wrong but "contradicted the very principles on which the Alliance of Civilizations is based." Though Erdogan has not apologized for his obnoxious language one little-noticed consequence of the strong criticism of his words was that the official publication of his speech, by the Anadolu Agency on March 1, 2013, was altered: the word "Zionism" was eliminated from his inappropriate remarks.
Even more important was the immediate response from John Kerry, now U.S. Secretary of State, who while visiting Ankara expressed his view on Erdogan's speech in a joint press conference with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister saying that "We not only disagree with it. We found it objectionable." Kerry said he would raise the issue with Erdogan himself. The State Department has added that the Turkish behavior towards Israel was having a "corrosive effect" on relations between the U.S. and Turkey, as well as complicating efforts at making peace in the Middle East. John Kerry's first major speech as Secretary of State was largely devoted to the need for international action on the issue of climate change. It is heartening that he has now spoken out strongly against the prejudice and false accusations against Israel. Perhaps truth will continue to be spoken by the United States about Middle East affairs.