Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fiery exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres on January 29 at the World Economic Forum in Davos may earn him votes in Turkey’s next municipal elections in March this year or sympathy on Arab streets. But it is hard to expect that it would not harm Turkey’s role as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world, a would-be mediator between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Ankara’s relations with Washington, and its bid for EU membership.
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, passionately defended his country’s assault on Gaza last month and, raising his voice and pointing finger at Erdogan, asked him what Turkey would do if rockets were fired at Istanbul every night. Israel’s Gaza offensive, directed against the ruling Hamas group, has caused 1,300 Palestinian deaths, two-third of them children and other civilians, and a huge destruction of nonmilitary infrastructure.
The culmination of Erdogan’s emotional response that bordered on a scandal didn’t wait too long: “Mr. Peres” he said, “you are older than me and your voice is very loud. The reason for you raising your voice is probably the psychology of guilt.” That was to the address of the Israeli president personally. But using the Turkish informal word of “sen” (”you”) as opposed to the formal and respectful word of “siz” (”you”), the Turkish prime minister adopted the same way of talking in Turkey’s parliament, especially in addressing the opposition, a language with an undertone of bossiness that is understood in the West as arrogance.
Not enough. Erdogan continued: “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I personally know two Israeli prime ministers who told me how happy they were marching in tanks into Palestinian lands.” And then he accused the moderator of the debate who was trying to interrupt him, for allowing Peres to talk for 25 minutes but interrupting Erdogan after 12 minutes. After this outburst, Erdogan stood up and left the conference room, saying he would never return to any World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
Arriving at home, thousands welcomed the Turkish prime minister at Istanbul Airport and, hailing his pro-Palestinian outburst, chanted: “Turkey is proud of you!” Turkey’s pro-government papers as well as many Arab and Iranian newspapers positively reported about Erdogan’s appearance in Davos. But many others, including some Turkish media outlets and analysts were wondering about implications for Turkey’s standing in international and regional affairs.
There have been efforts of damage control: President Peres called Prime Minister Erdogan to say that, regardless of the dispute, he admired Turkey and the prime minister. And Erdogan reiterated that he stood by his criticism of the Gaza assault that should not be interpreted as “anti-Semitic” approach against Israel and the Jewish people he respected. But, apparently, the damage is hard to reverse.
Traditionally, Turkey has maintained a very good relationship with both Israel and the Arab world. Last year, it has successfully tried to mediate Israeli-Syrian peace talks in spite of a cool approach by the Bush administration. Also, Turkey’s efforts under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to liberalize the economy and reform and democratize the legislation has earned it positive feedback in both Brussels that is considering Turkey’s EU membership and Washington that is keen to see success for Turkey as a Muslim and democratic country.
Those Days Are Gone
Last year, Turkey has taken some steps that many analysts see as moves away from the West and closer to the Muslim world and Russia. While freezing the internal reform process, Ankara reacted rather passively in criticizing Russia’s offensive in Georgia last summer and campaigned for a “Caucasus Cooperation Pact” that includes Russia but has not been coordinated with Western powers. Erdogan himself called off Ankara’s mediation efforts in talks between Israel and Syria. He also pointedly did not visit Israel as part of his Middle East swing a few weeks ago.
On both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ankara, resisting to the overwhelming Western approach considering both groups as “terrorist,” has been defending and pursuing the position that these groups are representing parts of the Arab world that must be reckoned with and talked to instead of isolating and antagonizing them. Last Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan reiterated his government’s position that Ankara criticizes Hamas but says it should be included in peace talks.” Turkey was the first pro-Western Muslim country to invite a delegation of Hamas for an official visit to Ankara in 2006. And, writing in the liberal newspaper Radikal, Murat Yetkin, another Turkish journalist with exclusive contacts to political circles, reported that Erdogan had a meeting with foreign journalists ahead of the debate with Peres. Here Erdogan noted that US President Obama would be better advised to redefine terror and terrorist organizations in the Middle East and follow a new policy based on new definitions.
But the outburst on Thursday was more than a political calculation. Turkish journalists close to AKP report that Erdogan “has been boiling since Israel’s Gaza offensive,” feeling that Ankara must not hide its anger about Israel’s “disproportionate, punitive” action against Palestinian civilians. “I have been watching Erdogan since late 1980s,” wrote Turkish analyst Rushen Chakir in the daily Vatan, “seeing him many times angry.” “From the point of diplomacy, I was certainly surprised. But this [the fiery appearance in Davos] was typically Erdogan as I know him.”
Erdogan’s talking loudly, in a bossy and teaching tone with no big respect for the political opponent has been a subject of both concern and humor in the Turkish public. Some critics refer to him as the “cowboy of Kasimpasha,” an area in Istanbul Erdogan grew up. Ironically, the alleged style is also typical for Erdogan’s main political opponent, Deniz Baykal, who is leading the opposition CHP party in the parliament.
In a difficult time of economic crisis, increasingly less promising talks on EU accession, a less solid relationship with Washington, and an increasing need and chance for a negotiated peace in the Middle East under President Barack Obama, Turkey cannot afford emotional outbursts of its prominent leaders damaging Ankara’s international and regional standing. Turkey deserves a better representation and leaders who are not only vote-producing machines domestically but also diplomats carefully and wisely regaining the international support AKP received when it was elected to rule the country in 2007.