Monday, February 2, 2009

In the Wake of Davos

My inbox filled up quickly this past weekend after Prime Minister Erdoğan walked out of the World Economic Forum in Davos on Friday. Although insistent in his desire to normalize relations with Israel damaged by previous remarks (see Jan. 22 post), Erdoğan lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres in a panel discussion on Gaza.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post moderated the panel, which also included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Arab League Secretary-General and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr-Moussa. After Erdoğan condemned Israel's indiscriminate targeting of civilians in Gaza and its illegal use of white phosphorus gas in populated areas, Peres angrily responded that Turkey would do the same if Istanbul was faced with rocket fire. In retort to Peres' raised voice and finger-pointing, Erdoğan asked Ignatius for time to respond. Regretfully, Ignatius denied the request, giving Erdoğan only a minute to respond to Peres' scolding. A visibly frustrated Erdoğan ignored Ignatius, who rather thoughtlessly responded that it was time "to get people to dinner," patting Erdoğan's shoulder for a while in a move that some read as disrespecting. Talking over Ignatius, Erdoğan proceeded to excoriate Peres, prefacing his remarks with the Sixth Commandment and Peres' "guilty conscience." Throwing up his hands, the Prime Minister then indignately remarked that Peres had been given 25 minutes to speak while he had been granted only 12. (Ignatius had, in fact, given Peres more time, but by five minutes.) Erdoğan -- the crowd, including Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, now stupefied -- declared himself done with Davos, soon after walking abruptly off the stage. Shortly after, Erdoğan's wife, Emine, reinforced her husband's sentiments, dramatically standing before reporters in tears to denounce everything Peres said as a lie. The whole panel discussion can be viewed on the YouTube link above. To skip ahead to Erdoğan's fiery, yet surprisingly crisp retort, go to 1:01 on the video.

Ecstatic crowds made for a hero's welcome when Erdoğan arrived in Istanbul later that night. (Click here for video footage from the BBC.) Talking before thousands of people, Erdoğan struck a nationalist tone, calling his response a matter of honor for Turkey and her people, but also urged that the future of Turkey-Israel relations should not be determined in anger. Turkish television and newspapers cheered the Prime Minister throughout the weekend, his actions viewed as demonstrable of an independent foreign policy. Even those who have been commitedly in opposition to Erdoğan and the AKP lauded his response at Davos, largely a function of Turkey's national pride and sense of itself being under siege. CHP opposition leader Deniz Baykal praised Erdoğan at Davos, forecasting that AKP is likely to win with a majority of the vote. Self-identified "secularist" friends have sent emails extolling Erdoğan, and Davos makes it highly unlikely that AKP will lose votes to the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the conservative Felicity Party (SP), the latter of which received an injection of popularity during the war in Gaza (see January 14 post).

The future of Turkey-Israel relations is yet to be determined. Taken in light of Peres' raised voice and finger-pointing, it would have been politically disastrous for the Prime Minister not to respond strongly. Wisely, after the meeting, both leaders qualified their exchange: Erdoğan said his choler was directed mainly toward Ignatius and the uneven format of the debate, while Peres apologized for raising his voice, explaining he had raised it because he was told it was difficult to hear in the auditorium. And, though the conservative Israeli press has pounded Erdoğan in the past few days, the reaction could have been much worse. Israeli Foreign Minister and Kadima's candidate for PM in upcoming Israeli elections did argue that Erdoğan should show more respect for the important strategic partnership that premises Turkey-Israel relations, but criticism has for the most part been tempered.

Also to be seen is how Erdoğan's remarks will impact Turkey's ambition to mediate between Israel and Syria, not to mention Hamas, and just what Turkish diplomacy in Gaza means for its position in the Middle East. Ironically, now a hero in the eyes of many Arabs, Erdoğan has placed Turkey in a potentially precarious position. While popularity in the Arab World should be welcome, the authoritarian leaders of Arab States are unlikely to sit by and watch Erdoğan's popularity grow lest it further undermine the legitimacy of their own regimes. And, even more problematic is that Turkey's diplomatic capital is now largely dependent on Hamas. Should Hamas leaders provoke Israel and/or act in any way particularly unbecoming to international norms, Turkey's support of Hamas -- as it is being read in the Arab World -- will need to be re-evaluated. In such an event, it is highly unlikely that Turkey would stand by Hamas, as doing so would devastate relations with Israel and the United States, raise important questions in Europe (which has been laudatory of Turkey's engagement with Hamas), and further discomfit Arab leaders (whose skill in maintaining the status quo should not be underestimated). If Hamas acts foolishly and loses the support of the international community it has garnered thanks to Israel's disproportionate response, Turkey will be placed in an untenable situation, and surely this reality is not lost on Hamas leaders.

Another problem in the wake might manifest itself come expected efforts by the Armenian diaspora in the United States to renew efforts to pass a resolution in the United States Congress recognizing as genocide the 1915 massacres of Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The powerful Jewish lobby has historically come to the assistance of Turkey to counter such pushes.

Peripherally, it will be interesting to see how Erdoğan's indignation will effect Turkey's policy toward the Kurds and its hosting figures like Omar al-Bashir, hypocrisies involving which have been pointed out by foreign and domestic press alike. It will also be interesting to see if ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's announcement that he is exploring ways to prosecute IDF commanders guilty of war crimes commited in Gaza will bolster support for the ICC.


As before, there is concern that Erdoğan's remarks at Davos will fuel anti-Semitism, though the Prime Minister has repeated that Jews and Israelis should not be confused with the Israeli state. Before Friday prayers, Mustafa Çağırcı, head cleric of Istanbul's mosques, reportedly urged all imams to refrain from any comments that might be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Despite Erdoğan's repeated rejection of anti-Semitism, Yigal Schleifer is understandably troubled by the Prime Minister's mention of anti-Semitic performer Gilad Atzmon, asking the question of just where Erdoğan picked up Atzmon's name and whether it is reflective of who is advising him on Middle East policy. While Erdoğan also cited the work of Avi Schlaim, dropping the name of the less than savory figure of Atzmon understandably disconcerts Schleifer. Bemoaning evidence of a flurry of anti-Semitism, Schleifer explores the "online conversion" of Ignatius, who was falsely reported to be Jewish by the secular-leaning Hürriyet. Turkey is rife with what Schleifer calls "citizen propaganda," and correct in drawing attention to the proliferation of virulent anti-Semitism in discourse as of late.

UPDATE 2/3 -- The Jerusalem Post is reporting that the Israeli Defense Ministry's Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Organization (SIBAT) is re-evaluating several recently submitted arms requests made by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The paper cites an anonymous official in the Defense Ministry: Turkey is eyeing moderate Arab countries and is hoping to strengthen its ties with them . . . . Just like we don't sell advanced military platforms to Jordan and Egypt, we may decide not to sell to Turkey." According to the Post,
In December, subsidiaries of IAI and Elbit Systems signed a $140 million deal to supply the Turkish Air Force with targeting pods. Israeli Military Industries (IMI) recently completed a $700m. deal signed several years ago with Turkey to upgrade the country's fleet of aging Patton-series M60 tanks. IAI also recently supplied Turkey with its advanced long-range Heron unmanned aerial vehicle.

Sources in defense industries expressed hope that the crisis with Ankara would pass and would not have a negative impact on sales to Turkey.

UPDATE 2/4 -- Evidence of discomfited Arab leaders thanks to EDM's Emrullah Uslu:
Foreign ministers of nine Arab countries-Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates-met in Abu Dhabi as part of a growing Arab process of consultation and increasing Arab solidarity. A statement issued after the meeting noted, "We are working to overcome this difficult time in the Arab world and ensure that unwelcome, non-Arab parties do not become involved in our affairs in an unconstructive manner" (,, February 3). The Turkish press maintains that this "unwelcome, non-Arab party" is Turkey and that Arab leaders are not happy about Erdogan's response to the Gaza crisis (, February 4).
For full article, click here. On Jan. 15, Uslu wrote that Erdoğan is positioning himself as a new Nasser, and as noted above, a Turkish Nasser is not a prospect likely to be passively accepted by Arab leaders.

Also, I wrote above that Israeli press coverage has been much less incendiary than it could be. While I still think this is for the most part true, Yigal Schleifer writes today of some pretty shoddy coverage that made its way into Ha'aretz. The paper recently reported that vandals burned down a synagogue in Bursa, an event that simply did not happen, but which Ha'aretz did not correct.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you noticed how the stress (from both sides of the Turkish press and the AKP) has shifted to the 'terbiyesiz' (roughly 'rude') moderator, while it is fairly obvious that what appealed to the crowds here and and elsewhere was the utterance about killing pople?

It appears that the public perception is being managed by all involved.