Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), have ruled Turkey since 2002. Erdoğan’s Turkey has gradually distanced itself from the Kemalist Republican tradition and the West, adopting domestic and foreign policies fueled by Ottoman and Islamist impulses.
His frequent outbursts in the last decade against Israel are a result of a foreign-policy reorientation that no longer sees Israel as a strategic ally in a tough neighborhood, and his desire to have good relations with the Muslim world. Like other Muslim states, Turkey has a soft spot for the Palestinians. Moreover, Erdoğan really dislikes Jews. He holds a rich record of anti-Semitic statements, which burst forth in Pavlovian fashion following any Israeli-Palestinian clash.
Erdoğan’s upbringing and political trajectory indicates that he is a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under this leader, Turkey has gradually adopted policies that amount to a wholesale attempt to Islamize the country. This includes putting restrictions on the sale of alcohol, enhancing the status of religious schools, encouraging the establishment of Muslim-oriented institutions of learning, and nominating Islamists to sensitive positions in the public and private sectors.
He has put Turkey on the road to authoritarianism. Infringements on human rights have grown gradually. In truth, Turkey never has had a political system with checks and balances able to constrain attempts to consolidate power around one politician. In recent years, Erdoğan has weakened further the few constitutional constraints against “Putinization” of the Turkish political system. Capitalizing on the failed coup of 2016, he pressed for a presidential political system, further centralizing power.
The longer he rules, the more power-hungry he seems to become. His authoritarian personality becomes clearer every day. The Turkish press is hardly free. Erdoğan arrests even Islamist journalists who are critical of his policies. His party has infiltrated the judicial system and the police. Many foci of power, such as the bureaucracy, the banking system, industrial associations and trade unions have been mostly co-opted by the AKP. Opposition political parties are largely discredited. The military, once active in politics as the defender of the Kemalist secular tradition, has been successfully sidelined.
Islamism has also colored Turkish foreign policy under Erdoğan. Despite the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, its president is playing a double game with regards to the fight against the Islamic State organization. Turkey pretends to cooperate with the United States in the attempt to contain radical Islam, but actually supports ISIS. It has allowed passage of volunteers through Turkish territory to join ISIS in Iraq. ISIS received logistical support via Turkey and sends its wounded militants for treatment in Turkey. Turkish military forces stood idly by the besieged city of Kobani, just across the Turkish border, while the Islamists killed Kurdish fighters. Turkey has denied the American air force access to Turkish bases, forcing America to use distant bases when attacking ISIS targets. ISIS remnants in Syria have found refuge in Turkish-controlled Syrian territory, too.
Turkey is also openly supporting another radical Islamist organization: Hamas. Despite the Western designation of Hamas a terrorist organization, Ankara regularly hosts Hamas representatives that meet the highest Turkish dignitaries. Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, holds rabid anti-American positions. Moreover, the Turkish branch of Hamas has been involved in a series of attempts to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel and in strengthening Hamas cells in the Palestinian Authority.
Turkey, a historic rival of Persia, even has warm relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Erdoğan has admitted feeling more at ease in the bazaars of Tehran than on the Champs-Élysées. In June 2010, Turkey voted at the U.N. Security Council against a U.S.-sponsored resolution meant to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran. It has helped Iran to circumvent sanctions.
Israel has always shown an interest in having cordial relations with Turkey, an important regional power. Following this week’s mutual expulsion of diplomats, Jerusalem has no desire for a further escalation in the bilateral relationship. It is advisable to adopt a policy clearly distinguishing between the Erdoğan government and the people of Turkey. The struggle over the soul of Turkey is not over yet, and sensible Turks may yet be able to overcome the current dark days.
Erdoğan deserves to be portrayed as he is: an anti-Semitic Islamist, a ruthless dictator and an impulsive bully. Yet, Israel should resist the temptation to “punish” Turkey by adopting a resolution in Knesset recognizing the “Armenian genocide”—an empty gesture that will only antagonize many Turks of many political hues.
Israel should ring the alarm bells about Turkish adventurism. Under Erdoğan, Turkey has become a dangerous country. It is challenging the agreed borders with Greece. It bullies Cyprus, a third of which is occupied by Turkish forces. It has a military presence in Iraq and Syria, and bases in Qatar and Sudan. It dreams of establishing a front against Israel on the Golan Heights.
Therefore, it is imperative that the U.S. administration and Congress halt the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, as well as any other military equipment in the pipeline, in order to prevent strengthening the Turkish military. Erdoğan’s Turkey is not a reliable Western ally. Strengthening the Turkish military might encourage him to engage in additional military adventures in the Middle East.
Turkey is a serious problem for Israel, but also for the moderate Sunni states and for the West.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Institute.