Turkey Pulse

Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric may not have impact he expects

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Article Summary
Turkey, with a fragile economy mostly dependent on the benevolence of its European partners and Israel, cannot swagger about in the Middle East.

There has not been a single week when Turkey did not make headlines in the international media, especially by the second half of 2017.

The latest was last week; this time the subject was Israel. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments, though, were not totally unjustified. Turkey is the current chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and it was impossible for Erdogan to sit idle while Israel imposed excessive measures denying Muslim worshippers from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, the third holiest place for Muslims. Consequently, Erdogan took the initiative to call the leaders of the Muslim countries for joint action. He also called Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

Erdogan made incendiary remarks in a speech to his party’s parliamentary group in Ankara. “When Israeli soldiers recklessly pollute the grounds of Al-Aqsa with their combat boots by using simple issues as pretexts and then easily spill blood there, it is because we [Muslims] have not done enough to stake our claim over Jerusalem,” Erdogan said.

The spat between the Turkish president and the Israeli government fell short of mobilizing the Muslim masses all over the world, but it was sufficient in inspiring certain Muslim archnationalists in Turkey to mount two attacks on synagogues in Istanbul, a new source of embarrassment for the Turkish government. Although neither Erdogan nor his government endorsed such acts of aggression, the row with Israel was enough to inspire his loyalists to take to the streets.

This incident with Israel came at the heels of a crucial crisis between Turkey and EU powerhouse Germany. The relations between the two countries had already soured recently. Back in March, Berlin did not allow Erdogan and his ministers to hold election campaigns in Germany. In response, Erdogan accused the German government of implementing Nazi practices, the nastiest accusation that can be addressed to Germany. Turkey’s refusal to allow German parliamentarians to visit their military contingent at the Incirlik air base led Germany to withdraw its soldiers and transfer them to Jordan instead.

The quick deterioration was accelerated by other two developments: the arrest of a Turkish-German journalist representing the German newspaper Die Welt on unconvincing charges of supporting a “terrorist organization” and by German approval of the applications of Turkish generals for political asylum. These generals were serving and representing Turkey at the NATO facilities at the time of the botched coup on July 15, 2016.

Many Turkish and German political analysts believe that Erdogan is holding German nationals in detention as a bargaining chip for a deal he may reach with Berlin and/or as a display of his frustration with German policies vis-a-vis Turkey.

If Erdogan has been testing his limits with Germany by his inflammatory accusations directed against it and provoking anti-German (as well as anti-Western) sentiments in the Turkish public, he may finally have reached that limit. The detention and ultimately the arrest of six (later became eight) human rights activists under the charges of supporting an unnamed “terrorist organization” triggered a very stern reaction from Germany. Among those who were arrested was German national Peter Steudtner.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel cut his vacation short and returned to Berlin to summon the Turkish ambassador. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble likened Turkey to the defunct East German republic.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the imprisonment of Peter Steudtner was “totally unjustified.”

More importantly, Gabriel, with Merkel’s blessing, who the German press reports to be uncharacteristically supportive of hard-line measures toward Turkey, announced a “reorientation” of relations between the two countries. He warned German companies about doing business in Turkey and cautioned German citizens to refrain from visiting Turkey.

Turkey, according to the figures provided by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, has lost $12 billion in revenue from foreign tourists over the past two years. German tourists who traditionally make up one of the biggest tourist groups visiting Turkey were already down by 25% in the first five months of this year.

Moreover, with almost 7,000 German companies doing business in Turkey and the trade volume between the two countries amounting to $36 billion, a German stand with economic and financial underpinnings could become painful for Erdogan’s fortunes in Turkey and would have an effect on the EU’s already uneasy relationship with Turkey, adding further negative reactions from Ankara.

German authorities have called for a review of the EU’s aid contributions to Ankara, which total around $650 million, and more importantly, of export credit guarantees for German companies investing in Turkey. This has created panic on the Turkish side.

Despite Erdogan’s statement that called Germany’s actions “unforgivable,” Turkey stepped back.

“A German misunderstanding occurred due to a communication problem,” said Bekir Bozdag, the new Turkish government spokesman, as he tried to soothe German outrage.

By giving signals that it might capitulate when it comes to economy and finance, Turkey’s leverage on Israel is weaker than ever. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with certain awareness of that fact, did not seem impressed with Erdogan’s anger. He retorted cynically with a statement from the prime minister’s office. “It would be interesting to see what Erdogan would say to the residents of northern Cyprus or to the Kurds. Erdogan is the last person who can preach to Israel,” the statement said.

The way the spat between Turkey and Israel has evolved and the point it has reached are clear indications that Erdogan's anti-Israel stand cannot make up for the deterioration with Germany and the EU.

As much as Turkey is isolated in the West, it is losing its weight and leverage in the Middle East as well. Even Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric against Israel is not a remedy for it.

It is not difficult to figure out that a country with a fragile economy mostly dependent on the benevolence of its European partners, above all Germany, cannot swagger about in the Middle East as if it is a political powerhouse.

Found in: european union, al-aqsa mosque, turkish-israeli relations, turkish influence in the middle east, angela merkel, recep tayyip erdogan, turkish economy

Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Stockholm University Institute of Turkish Studies (SUITS). On Twitter: @cengizcandar

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