Something odd is happening as Turkey marches toward a referendum next month on whether to expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Israel is not serving as Erdogan’s whipping boy in the campaign to fire up the masses.
Instead, the Netherlands now stars in that role, and that, from Jerusalem’s perspective, is not an insignificant change.
In every election campaign in Turkey since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident that sent relations between Jerusalem and Ankara into a downward spiral, anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric spiked during the campaigns. This, according to Turkey watchers in Jerusalem, was evident in the parliamentary campaigns of June 2011 and November 2015, as well as the presidential campaign in 2014, and the municipal elections of that year as well.
As then-deputy foreign minister Tzachi Hanegbi put it in 2014, Erdogan and other top officials of his party employ the “manipulative, populist tactic of insulting Jews” before each election.
Or, as another observer of Turkey put it, “You knew when elections were getting closer in Turkey over the last eight years by the fierceness of the attacks on Israel.”
August 2014 was especially bad, since the presidential campaign coincided with Operation Protective Edge.
Israelis, Erdogan said at the time, “will drown in the blood they shed, there is no such thing as eternal tyranny. One day they will pay for their tyranny.
We are waiting impatiently to see the day of justice, I believe wholeheartedly that justice will be served.”
He continued: “Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target.”
At other points in that campaign he variously said that Israel was engaged in genocide and was worse than Hitler, declaring that “those who condemn Hitler day and night have surpassed Hitler in barbarism.”
Erdogan has liberally alluded to Nazism and Hitler during this referendum campaign as well. But this time it is the Dutch and Angela Merkel’s Germany – not Israel – whose practices he has likened to those of the Nazis because they have kept Turkish ministers from attending referendum election rallies for Turkish expatriates on their soil.
Which raises the question: Why? Why has Erdogan kept Israel out of the campaign? First of all it has to do with the reconciliation agreement that was signed between the two countries last year. Since the two countries exchanged ambassadors in November, Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric has decreased markedly.
When former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was ousted last May, replaced by close Erdogan ally Binali Yildirim, the first two steps Erdogan took were to reach an accommodation with Russia and Israel. He made a strategic choice that in the changing world, Turkey needed better relations with both countries.
By removing friction with Israel, he could focus on other areas, such as Syria and the Kurds. But his reconciliation with Israel was not only connected to Syria, but also to Turkey’s energy needs – it wants Israeli natural gas – as well as to a belief that the pathway to the Trump administration in Washington leads through Jerusalem.
Erdogan, looking to improve relations with Washington following a fraught relationship with former president Barack Obama, saw the closeness of the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump last month, and – according to Turkey watchers in Jerusalem – concluded that this was another reason it was not worth picking a fight with Israel.
Erdogan has shown himself generally careful not to go after those he thinks can cause Turkey harm. For instance, following the attempted coup against him last summer he demanded that the US extradite US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen who he charged was behind it. Even though Washington has not extradited Gulen, Erdogan has kept quiet.
Likewise, his strategic interests at this time are served by a smooth relationship with Israel – which has taken the Jewish state out of his campaign talking points.
The Turkish president does not, however, have a whole lot to lose by lashing out at the Dutch in particular, and the Europeans in general. The idea of becoming part of the European Union is dead, and attacking the Europeans fires up his own nationalist constituency.
The diplomatic row with the Netherlands is expected to rally his constituents around him in what is shaping up to be a very close referendum.
This row also serves the interests of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is facing a parliamentary election on Wednesday and a huge challenge from his right in the form of Geert Wilders and his anti-Islamic Party for Freedom. By standing up to Erdogan, not allowing the Turkish ministers to attend a rally in Rotterdam in favor of the referendum, Rutte comes across as looking tough on Muslims, a popular election card to play these days. But the incident also plays into Wilder’s hands as well.
Both Erdogan, as well as Rutte, have an interest in the current row, and Israel can sit quietly on the sidelines, not an issue – for the first time in many years – in a Turkish election campaign.
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