Let's Talk Turkey

The famous economist John Maynard Keynes once remarked, “When my information changes I alter my conclusion.” It is time that the international community should alter its previous conclusions after noticing the startling contrast between accommodating gracious behavior on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and the true face and the churlish and insensitive conduct of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Netayahu, in a telephone conversation on March 21, 2013 with Erdogan, then Turkish prime minister, apologized for the “tragic results”, the injuries and loss of life, stemming from the clashes between IDF soldiers and pro-Hamas Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara ship in May 2010 attempting to go to the Gaza Strip. He urged normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey, and even mentioned that Israel was prepared to give compensation to the families of the nine people who had killed during the incident.

In contrast, Erdogan, so eager to demand apologies, has refused to give any for the brutal actions of his own regime. Turkey has long wanted to become a member of the European Union and negotiations have gone through periods of breakdowns because of Turkey’s lack of democratic values and human rights. In a resolution of June 13, 2013 the European Parliament, considering the issue of peaceful demonstrations in Istanbul, deplored the reaction of the Turkish government and of Erdogan personally in refusing to take steps towards reconciliation with the protestors or to apologize for the harsh actions of the Turkish police for a number of days starting on May 28, 2013.

In those days, Turkish police with great brutality, on May 28, using water cannon, chemical sprays, and tear gas, attacked a group of environmentalists and academics, almost all secular in belief, protesting in Taksim Square against the government proposal to turn Gezi Park in Istanbul into a shopping mall. A number of protestors were killed and more than 4,000 injured in Istanbul by the regime headed by Erdogan, the new “sultan.” Though it was a peaceful civil disobedience protest, the new authoritarian sultan, who has changed the Turkish system to a presidential one, accused “terrorists” of participating in the anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul and other Turkish cities.

The Israeli prime minister is not the only political figure to apologize to Erdogan. In October 2014, Vice President Joseph Biden apologized for remarks he had made at Harvard on October 2, 2014 when he quoted his “old friend” Erdogan as having said he had made a mistake in letting foreign fighters cross Turkish borders into Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Turkish president denied he had made the remark and Biden apologized through he had spoken truth to power. Turkey in fact has allowed thousands of Islamic jihadists to cross its borders to help their fellow terrorists.

Since his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), took power in 2002, Erdogan has been a polarizing figure in Turkish politics, increasingly intolerant of dissent, both in internally and externally. He has made Turkey the world’s biggest prison for journalists (in 2013 there were 49 in jail), and transformed the media, eroding free expression. The European Union commented that the mainstream Turkish media had remained silent about the brutality of the Turkish police towards the demonstrators. He is gradually changing the secular character of Turkey into a pro-Islamic system. Turkey has attacked women’s reproductive rights and imposed alcohol-free zones. Erdogan and his AKP party have weakened the power of the military, a number of whose generals are in prison undergoing show trials.

Externally, his ambitious policy, shown by his plans to build a second Bosporus bridge to connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and a very large mosque, can be called “neo-Ottomanism,” a policy of increasing Turkish prominence in the Middle East, if not restoring the Ottoman Empire and its borders.

That prominence has been displayed in negative fashion. In recent years Erdogan has been unhelpful, and even hostile, towards the Western efforts to control and prevent the spread of Islamist terrorism, the main danger to the world today. Turkey has been the main port of entry for Islamic terrorists to enter Syria. Erdogan opened the frontiers of Turkey to the jihadists, both fighters and their equipment. He did not allow food to go to the beleaguered Kurds and prevented other Kurds from going to fight the Islamic State, especially in Kobani.  His excuse was that the Islamists, after the fall of Mosul, held 46 Turkish hostages, diplomats and their families, and he appeased the terrorists by exchanging the hostages for 1800 jihadists. He did not help Western forces fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. In contrast, Erdogan has been friendly with Hamas in Gaza and with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The behavior of Erdogan suggests that he regards the Kurds and Israel as his main enemies. Turkey did accept some Kurds who fled from or were driven out of Iraq by the attacks of the Islamic State. But he refused to allow Kurds from Turkey to help fellow Kurds in Syria. Above all, he has refused to grant some form of autonomy to the Turkish Kurds, who together with fellow Kurds in neighboring countries number about 30 million.

Before Erdogan came to power, relations between Turkey and Israel were mutually agreeable. Turkey in 1949 was the first Muslim majority country to recognize Israel. Cooperation embraced a variety of activities: trade, tourism, the Israeli Air Force practicing in Turkish air space, and Israeli experts upgrading Turkish combat jets. The memory of that harmonious relationship is displayed in the memorials to Kemal Ataturk in various locations, including Beersheba, in Israel.

Erdogan has changed that relationship, and has become, as has his prime minister, increasingly aggressive in hostility and in his posture of moral superiority. Forgetting the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians in 1915, the ethnic cleansing of Greek Cypriots in the 1950s and 1960s, the constant war against the Kurds, for which no apology has ever been given, Erdogan has referred to Zionism as a “crime.”

Erdogan, with a group of business people, had made a friendly visit to Israel in 2005, even laying a wreath at Yad Vashem. But he soon scaled down the former cordiality and mutual interests, and the extensive military relations and arms deals, between the two countries. A remarkable example of undiplomatic behavior and intolerance was shown on January 29, 2009 when Erdogan stormed off a World Economic Forum television program in Davos after his angry clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israeli policy towards Gaza.

In comments made after the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris, Erdogan and his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have reached a new level of malevolence toward Israel. Erdogan, evidently forgetting that on January 9, 2015 four Jews had been murdered in the Hyper Cacher, kosher shop in Porte de Vincennes in Paris, as well as a policewoman earlier, by an Islamic terrorist who allied himself with the Islamic State,  could “hardly understand how Netanyahu dared to go “ to the march against terrorism in Paris. He wanted the Israeli prime minister, whom he accused of “state terrorism” against terrorism, to give an “account for the children, women you massacred.”    

For his part, Davutoglu, using rhetoric that borders on the diabolical, said that Netanyahu committed crimes against humanity comparable to the Islamic attacks that killed 17 people. Davutoglu asserted that “Netanyahu himself killed, his army killed children in the playground.”

So far the “international community” has not repudiated the provocative remarks of the Turkish leaders which are not only morally repulsive but also implicitly critical of the Western war against Islamist terrorism. It is bewildering that the belligerence against Israel and the refusal to help Western countries fighting against the Islamist threat comes from a member of NATO. The U.S. might consider the issue of whether Turkey should be allowed to remain in NATO.

The UN and other international groups have been largely reluctant to condemn the gross violations of human rights in Turkey. They should not be silent or indifferent  in the face of rhetorical aggressiveness by Turkey, a country that still refuses to acknowledge the genocide it committed a century ago. The Obama Administration and western political leaders must be more compelling in urging this fellow NATO member to end the incitement against Israel and the increasing anti-Semitism of Turkish leaders.