Ankara, Turkey In 2008, when I last visited this hilly capital city in the Anatolian heartland, I talked with top officials about their efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria.
What a difference two years make. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warmly embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and voted against Iran sanctions. And he’s become a bitter critic of Israel after its 2009 invasion of Gaza and its raid last spring on a Turkish aid ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza; eight Turks and one Turkish-American were killed, shocking Turks of all political outlooks.
This shift has raised doubts in Washington about the political direction of this secular Muslim state that spans Europe and Asia. It has also spawned exaggerated claims that Erdogan has joined a Tehran-Damascus-Hamas axis. But Turkey is much more complicated than that.
I sat down with the frank and often emotional Erdogan at his political party’s headquarters to probe his thoughts about Turkey’s links with the East and the West.
Did he still feel it was important for Turkey to join the European Union? “For the last 50 years, Turkey was kept in front of the door of the European Union, the only country treated this way,” Erdogan said. “It’s an ugly approach. You should direct this question not to us, but to the 27 E.U. member countries and their leaders: Why are you keeping Turkey away?”
Feeling spurned by Europe, Erdogan is seeking closer relations with Muslim neighbors. Turkey’s moves are also part of a push to develop new export markets and new sources of foreign direct investment, 80 percent of which still comes from Western Europe.
Turkey’s economy is booming, with 7 percent growth. Ankara, which used to be a dumpy bureaucratic capital, is now an industrial center with smart shops and restaurants. Could Erdogan’s country become an economic model for the Muslim world? I asked. “Why not?” he retorted with justifiable pride.
But economic pragmatism doesn’t explain Erdogan’s emotional response on the Israel issue. Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the Jewish state in 1950, and their breach changes the dynamic of the region.
Could ties with Jerusalem be restored? “As long as Israel does not apologize” or pay an indemnity to families of the victims, “we cannot easily re-establish our friendship,” the prime minister said. “In the Middle East, the only friend Israel used to have was Turkey. With the last step, Israel has pushed itself to the corner to stand alone in the world.”
Some of Erdogan’s anger stems from a sense of betrayal: Israel attacked Gaza as he was on the verge of brokering new Israeli-Syrian talks, and it never informed him that the attack was coming. Erdogan was also incensed at the suffering of Gazan civilians during the invasion. “Israel bombed the U.N. compound in Gaza, they bombed hospitals, and no one tells them to stop.”
But if the Turkish leader cares about human rights, how can he embrace Ahmadinejad, who smashes political opposition and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map? “Iran is our neighbor since 1639,” he responded. “Ahmadinejad is a president, elected in his country.” Erdogan said he had “conveyed to the honorable Ahmadinejad that I am not in favor of such (anti-Israel) statements. But Israel (says), ‘We will bomb you.’ Did anyone react?”
And the Turkish leader decries the U.S. veto of a U.N. Human Rights Council report condemning Israel for the flotilla raid. The United States and Europe were “enabling” Israel to act like “a spoiled child,” he insisted. (Of course, the U.N. council usually fails to target the world’s worst rights offenders.)
Yet Erdogan’s blasting of Israel and warm embrace of Iran, while pleasing to the Arab state, convey an image at odds with the broader outlook of the country. Turkey is not Iran and still recognizes Israel. It is a NATO member that, as Erdogan pointed out, plays a key role in Afghanistan.
Two coming events will test Erdogan’s intentions. Next month, NATO members will discuss whether to build a missile defense system aimed at countering Iran. Erdogan said that any attempt to specify which country the system will protect against “will never be accepted by us.”
And early next year, another U.N. report on the flotilla raid, under the auspices of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, may offer a face-saving opportunity for Turkey and Israel to repair their split.
At that point, Erdogan will have to decide whether he wants to talk to all the regional players, even those he dislikes, or to hobnob mainly with Muslim leaders — whether he wants to be a bridge between continents and cultures, or prefers to choose one side.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org