Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a thoroughgoing Muslim Brotherhood adherent, and has been since he first entered politics. During his early years as prime minister, back in the early 2000s, he was careful not to promote too radical an agenda too soon. Despite his Islamist views, he made an official visit to Israel in 2005 to be feted by Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. However it was not long before the previously close relations between Turkey and Israel began to sour. The turning point came in 2009, with the first conflict between Israel and Hamas, which had seized power in the Gaza strip and had been firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel.
In the annual international gathering at Davos that year, Erdogan could not restrain himself. Rounding on Israeli President Shimon Peres, Erdogan called the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip a "crime against humanity" and "barbaric." Wagging his finger at Peres, he declared: "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and killed children on beaches." Then, infuriated by the moderator's refusal to allow him more time in response to Peres's emotional rebuke, he stalked off the stage.
Between that first indication of Erdogan’s extreme Islamist stance and his intemperate reaction to the announcement by US President Donald Trump on December 6, 2017 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, lies the great barren waste of the Mavi Marmara affair – an encounter on the high seas between Israeli soldiers and a Turkish flotilla of six vessels, nominally on a humanitarian mission to relieve what had been described as the siege of Gaza. During the encounter, nine of those on board the Mavi Marama lost their lives.
Erdogan manipulated the event into a rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations lasting six years. But the series of investigations that followed revealed a cynical anti-Israel plot planned with the connivance of Turkey’s ruling AKP party and possibly of Erdogan himself, its leader.
Under the cloak of providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, an operation aimed at instigating a confrontation with Israel was meticulously planned. A six-ship flotilla was organised by western activists working with the Turkish "Insani Yardim Vakfi" (IHH) movement, a non-governmental organization supported by the Turkish government. The lead ship Mavi Marmara was purchased by the IHH from a major shipping company owned by the Istanbul Municipality, which is run by the ruling AKP party. Far from being crammed to the gunwales with humanitarian aid, three of the six ships in the convoy actually carried no aid at all. Mavi Marmara was one such.
To implement the plan some 40 armed activists were ushered aboard the leading ship of the flotilla – the Mavi Marmara – at a different embarkation point from the rest of the passengers, and without any of the security checks to which they were subject. They were led by the head of the IHH.
A Turkish journalist on board the Mavi Marmara said: "The flotilla was organized with the support of the Turkish government, and prime minister Erdogan gave the instructions for it to set sail."
Israel's botched military intervention, and the consequent death of nine of the militants, provided Erdogan with a political and diplomatic bonus he could scarcely have hoped for. He was not slow to exploit it, condemning Israel for committing a "massacre". His own alleged involvement, and that of his AKP party, in the plot remained largely hidden.
It took six long years of intensive negotiations before the affair was finally put to rest in June 2016. Even though Erdogan publicly slighted Israel on an almost daily basis, Israeli-Turkish trade grew over the period 2009-2015 by 19 percent, as against a growth of only 11 percent in Turkey’s overall foreign trade for the same period.
A large Turkish business delegation visited Israel in May 2017, enthusiastically advocating a 150 percent increase in Turkish-Israeli trade over the next five years. “We need to change the perception of the Israeli citizens and the Turkish citizens toward one another,” said Mehmet Buyukeksi, chairman of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM).
Erdogan’s reaction to the Trump announcement on Jerusalem, however, seemed to presage a replay of the Mavi Marmara situation. Speaking in parliament in Ankara, Erdogan declared: “Jerusalem is a red line for Muslims. This could lead us to break off our diplomatic relations with Israel.”
Three days later he turned his ire on Israel, which he described as a “terrorist state”, vowing to use all means to fight against the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “We will not abandon Jerusalem to the mercy of a state that kills children.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to give as good as he got in the battle of words. Denouncing Erdogan as a brutal dictator, he declared “I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran get around international sanctions, and who helps terrorists, including in Gaza, kill innocent people.”
Erdogan emerged from the Mavi Marmara episode with greatly enhanced prestige both domestically and more widely in the Muslim world. Now he is again seizing the initiative. He convened a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which he is currently president. Presenting himself as the Muslim defender of Jerusalem. he condemned Trump’s announcement, castigated the Arab world for its lacklustre response and called on world powers to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
Erdogan has three additional reasons for rounding on the United States. First, he hates the assistance America is giving the Syrian Kurds, who are fighting successfully against Islamic State. Second, the US has so far refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the rival religious movement whom Erdogan accuses of initiating the abortive coup against him in July 2016. Third, and most embarrassing to Erdogan, is the trial currently under way in New York involving Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab.
Zarrab is a key witness in the criminal trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla. In his testimony Zarrab has implicated Erdogan in an international money laundering scheme that he and the banker ran between 2010 and 2015, which allegedly allowed Iran access to global markets despite UN and US sanctions. He testified that in 2012 he was told by Turkey’s then economy minister that Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, had instructed Turkish banks to participate in the multi-million dollar scheme.
Erdogan’s most recent threat was to establish a Turkish embassy, accredited to the state of Palestine, in East Jerusalem. Whether making a big stir about the Jerusalem issue will succeed in diverting the world’s attention from other, more embarrassing, matters only time will tell.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 December 2017:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 December 2917: