The Dangers of Erdogan’s Empty Rhetoric


On June 7, Turkey will hold general elections for parliament. So it was only a matter of time before the world’s most vocal, non-Iranian critic of the Jewish State played the “Israel card” in order to gain a few more votes.

Before a massive crowd celebrating the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised the virtues displayed by Sultan Mehmet II on that fateful day hundreds of years ago, and then took things one step further.

“Conquest is Mecca, conquest is Saladin, it’s to hoist the Islamic flag over Jerusalem again; conquest is the heritage of Mehmed II and conquest means forcing Turkey back on its feet,” he urged the masses.

Much has been made of Erdogan’s anti-Israel (and at times undeniably anti-Semitic) rhetoric (Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil just wrote this interest analysis of the AKP’s use of Jerusalem as a political tool). I tend to think it is a premeditated strategy employed to garner political support. While anti-Semitism is no stranger to Turkey, and historically the Turkish public has sympathized with the Palestinian cause, the marriage of these sentiments (hardly a unique phenomenon in the world) has only evolved into its current form following the deterioration of ties with Israel in early 2009.

And Erdoğan is hardly the first Turkish politician to use anti-Israel rhetoric in order to energize his voting base. These tactics have been employed by Turkish politicians during previous crises in the Israel-Turkey relationship, more often than not when there were heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Even today’s opposition parties, hoping to shed light on AKP hypocrisies, turn their attention towards the government’s continued expansion of bilateral trade with Israel.

That being said, how does condemning Israel register with Turkish voters?

Here is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Dr. Emre Erdoğan (no relation) last summer prior to the August presidential elections on this very subject:

Are anti-Israel declarations an electoral asset in advance of Turkey’s presidential elections?

“Rhetorically yes. However, we do not have any empirical evidence. Polls before and after the 2009 Davos incident with President Shimon Peres showed that Erdoğan’s public support increased for a short period, then declined. Supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) endorsed his behavior and his opponents did not approve it; nobody really changed his or her position.

Personally I don’t believe that his anti-Israel rhetoric will bring him extra votes due to the fact that 90 percent of Turkish voters have already decided how to cast their ballot. However it may help foster his position as an “advocate of victims”, particularly in the Muslim world.

Yet political rhetoric does shape public opinion, and can be inter-generationally transferrable. As political elites interpret developments and reframe them according to their point of view, voters buy it and reposition themselves according to this framing. For example the majority of the Turkish elite perceives Operation Protective Edge as an Israeli “invasion”. It is presented to the public as an assault against the weak – babies, children, and women. Considering the extraordinary xenophobic attitudes of the Turkish public, such statements are quite welcome. Therefore, it is not surprising that voters will interpret every development from a viewpoint that presents the “brutality” of Israeli forces.

That being said, the divide between Erdoğan and Turkish nationalists is primarily based on the Kurdish issue. His anti-Israeli rhetoric cannot remedy this divide.”

So perhaps lambasting Israel doesn’t garner Turkish politicians any extra votes. However, a recent survey conducted by Kadir Has University, which revealed that 42.6% of Turks perceive of Israel as Turkey’s greatest foreign policy threat (the United States takes 2nd place), may confirm Dr. Erdoğan’s concerns about the inter-generational impact of such rhetoric. Articles about the emigration of Turkey’s Jewish population is yet another foreboding sign.

Admittedly, Israel and the United States often lead such foreign policy surveys in Turkey. According to one analysis in Haber Türk (translated here by Al Monitor), the Kadir Has survey results are reveal less about Turkish public opinion, and are more a reflection of the mixed messages being transmitted to the public by a media increasingly under the control of the government.

“For example, Israel is seen as the worst threat to Turkey, followed by 35.3% who see the United States as the real threat. Of those surveyed, 40.7% believe we have problems in our relations with the United States, and 51.9% perceive the United States as undependable, colonialist, hostile and self-serving. But the same public’s support for NATO, of which the United States is the backbone, is 67.1%…In a nutshell, we have a public that has delusions of grandeur, that doesn’t trust anybody, that think they are the victims but suggest a circumspect approach and that, no matter how angry they may be with the West, still wants to preserve their ties with that camp.”

But either way you slice it, the trends are not positive. Given the lack of public familiarity with Turkey’s foreign policy issues, politicians are emboldened to use populist hyperbole without consideration for its long-term effects on society. Whipping a crowd into a frenzy is prioritized over detailing the methodological nuances that differentiate one party from the next. So while Israeli-Turkish rapprochement may one day be a reality, a sea change must take place in order for such an accord to include the Turkish people.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey