Will Erdogan’s election setback spell change for Turkey and its ties with Israel?

Click photo to download. Caption: Posters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then prime minister) and Turkish flags seen hanging outside a kebab restaurant in an Arab-heavy section of eastern Jerusalem in October 2011. Credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90.

 

By Alina Dain Sharon and Sean Savage/JNS.org

A political upheaval is seemingly underway in Turkey, as the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan experienced a significant setback in the country’s June 7 parliamentary election. What does this mean for the country’s future as well as its relationship with the West and Israel?

Although the long-dominant Islamist party of Erdogan again received the most votes in the election, the number of seats it won is not enough for a full parliamentary majority. Besides thwarting Erdogan’s ambition of amending the Turkish constitution to give the presidency more executive power, the election results could force Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to form a governing coalition with other parties in Turkey’s parliament. AKP also faces the possibility of being completely ousted from a coalition by the other parties.

The setback to Erdogan’s regime comes against the backdrop of the Turkish leader’s ongoing anti-Israel foreign policy stances and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

“Particularly since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 [against Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule], Erdogan and other leaders of the AKP have spent a lot of time railing against various foreign interests that they claim do not have Turkey’s best interest at heart,” Michael Koplow, program director of the Israel Institute think tank, told JNS.org.

For example, during the recent election campaign, Erdogan lashed out at the foreign media for criticizing him—and floated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory in the process. At a rally, he said that “Jewish capital” funds the New York Times and that the newspaper has consistently criticized Turkey’s leaders, dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.

“It’s clear who their patrons are. There is Jewish capital behind it, unfortunately,” Erdogan said, AFP reported. 

While the recent elections results were a setback for Erdogan’s ambitions to seize more power, they are unlikely to change Erdogan’s behavior, according to Koplow.

“His behavior has become more divisive and erratic over the last few years,” Koplow said. “It really started when the AKP hit its peak of power in 2011 and then when the AKP started to get criticism for the first time in 2013. I don’t think we can expect his behavior to change for the better. The Erdogan we see now is here to stay.”

Efraim Inbar, professor of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), is not optimistic about AKP’s imminent political downfall and does not expect a change in Turkey’s attitude toward Western nations and Israel.

“The struggle over the soul and identity of Turkey continues,” Inbar told JNS.org, explaining that while “the election is definitely a blow to the AKP, [the party] still remains the major political force in Turkey.”

“I don’t think that any coalition in which the AKP, the Islamist party, is the major component will change current Turkish policy toward Israel,” he said, adding that in such a scenario Turkey “will continue with its [current] foreign policy.”

Yet Dr. Harold Rhode—a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute think tank and the former Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense—is encouraged by the possibility that Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), which won 132 seats, as well as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which gained about 80 seats apiece, may be considering forming a governing coalition that leaves out AKP. Other analysts, however, consider AKP’s absence from a coalition to be an unlikely scenario.

If a coalition is created without AKP, then “something very good will likely happen,” Rhode told JNS.org, saying that Israel “should begin a rethinking” of its relationship with Turkey in the event of that scenario. But Rhode cautioned that the Jewish state should “wait to see that things are actually happening the way it appears.”

Since there is significant tension within AKP itself, Rhode added, the three other parties “can defeat anything the AKP can try” to prevent its fall from grace if they collaborate.

Koplow said the AKP’s main strategy in the recent election—which proved unsuccessful—was to keep the Kurdish party from crossing the election threshold. 

“The AKP sought to tarnish the Kurdish party and to paint them as not Turkish and somehow foreign,” he said.

The Syrian civil war was also a major factor in determining the outcome of the election. 

“The AKP’s Syria policy is deeply unpopular throughout Turkey, but especially with Kurds in southeastern Turkey,” Koplow said.

Indeed, many Kurds were upset with the Turkish government’s response to the Islamic State terror group’s siege on the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani earlier this year. 

Kobani, which lies in Syria and on the border with Turkey, was the center of heavy fighting between Kurdish People’s Protection Units (who were supported by U.S. airstrikes) and Islamic State. While hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees and other refugees crossed into Turkey, the Turkish government provided little military support for Kurdish forces in their eventual victory over Islamic State, drawing strong condemnation and protests from the Kurds in Turkey.

“Many Kurds were convinced that Turkey was supporting the Islamic State, some even believe that Turkey created the Islamic state as a way to tamp down Kurdish nationalism,” Koplow said. He added that “historically the AKP drew a lot of support from conservative and religious Kurdish voters,” but the AKP’s policy in Syria was “the number one reason the Kurdish HDP party got past the threshold in the recent election and will keep support going forward.”

“I don’t see any signs that Turkey is going to shift their Syria policy,” said Koplow.

According to Rhode, the election results have also caused a major transformation in Turkish society. Suddenly, all over Turkish social media, users are posting humiliating comments about AKP and Erdogan because the election results led them to lose “their fear of Erdogan that they would be arrested and thrown in jail,” Rhode said.

“People are also talking on the phone in the most vitriolic way against Erdogan,” whereas beforehand they were afraid to do so, he said.

In Turkish media, there is also a visible change. During the Erdogan era, Turkish newspapers have been frequently hit with huge tax-evasion lawsuits and have had to pay huge fees. To offset this cost, editors hired journalists who published pro-Erdogan content. Now those journalists are being fired. The media is essentially telling Erdogan to “go to hell,” Rhode said.

When it comes to Turkey’s relationship with Israel, the once-close allies have had strained diplomatic relations since 2010, when a Turkish flotilla attempted to breach the blockade of Gaza, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish militants who had attacked Israeli soldiers on board.

“A year ago [Israel and Turkey] were close to signing an agreement to restore full relations, but Netanyahu balked on signing; he didn’t trust Erdogan and did not want to give him a diplomatic victory,” Koplow said. “At this point it really is a cold war between the two sides.”

Bilateral tensions have only increased as Erodgan and other AKP leaders have regularly lambasted Israel on the national and international stage. During his campaign for president last year, Erdogan—formerly Turkey’s prime minister—accused Israeli politicians as being “worse than Hitler,” said that Israel attempted genocide in Gaza, and regularly touted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 

“Whether [the bilateral tension] matters is another question, given that Turkish-Israeli bilateral trade is at its highest point ever, and it has only increased since the big [diplomatic] falling out in 2010,” Koplow said. “Economic relations are actually humming along quite nicely.”

Indeed, despite strained political relations, annual trade between Israel and Turkey stands at a robust $4 billion.

“Both Turkish and Israeli businesses would like their governments to put their agendas aside and resolve their differences,” said Koplow, who added that he doesn’t see that happening “as long as Erdogan and Netanyahu are in power.”

But Rhode is more optimistic, noting that he personally knows pro-American and pro-Israel officials “within the senior leadership of all three of the [non-AKP] parties.”

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on June 12, 2015 and filed under Israel, World, News, Features.