When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, during the lead-up to the country’s March 31 municipal elections, that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey,” he couldn’t have imagined that the catchy campaign slogan was going to energize his rivals and bode ill for his own continued reign of terror.
Even the initial mayoral victory of Ekrem Imamoğlu—the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate challenging Binali Yıldırım, a former prime minister from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)— three months ago in Turkey’s largest city didn’t seem to pose too great a problem for the Turkish despot. All he had to do was deem the election invalid on the basis of some phony “administrative error” and force a new round of polls. Which he did, on May 6, by having Turkey’s “Supreme Election Board” annul the Istanbul results.
If that didn’t work, he could always add a few dozen people to the already jam-packed jails, filled with anyone who dared to look at him cross-eyed.
Or so he must have thought.
What he didn’t realize, however, was that the extra few weeks before Sunday’s Istanbul election “redo” would work in Imamoğlu’s favor, enabling him to win by a far wider margin than the first time.
Imagine the Turkish tyrant’s horror at the massive crowds of secular CHP supporters, persecuted Kurds and disgruntled devout Muslims—sick and tired of backing the party hacks of an Islamist autocrat whose agenda never helped them improve their lot—gathering in the streets and hanging from balconies to cheer Imamoğlu.
Consider Erdoğan’s humiliation at Yıldırım’s concession of defeat. The same Erdoğan whose party had every electoral advantage. You know, with all the state’s institutions and controlled media outlets on his side. It would be a gross understatement to say that Imamoğlu was fighting an uphill battle. Which made his stunning victory that much sweeter and more significant.
It was a truly happy moment not only for Turks, but for the West as a whole. Erdoğan’s role as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 had catapulted him to an 11-year premiership in 2003 and to the presidency in 2014. Perhaps Imamoğlu is now on a similar path.
Indeed, if Erdoğan’s motto about Istanbul was correct, Turkey might be on the verge of wresting itself from Erdoğan’s stranglehold, and resume the moderate traditions and statesmanship of Kemal Atatürk, when the republic that he founded in 1923 was a burgeoning industrial democracy genuinely allied with the United States, Europe and Israel.
Yes, Israel, which Erdoğan has compared to the Third Reich.
“I don’t agree with what Hitler did and I also don’t agree with what Israel did in Gaza,” he said in an interview in 2016. “Therefore there’s no place for comparison in order to say what’s more barbaric.”
A few days later, Istanbul hosted the first annual conference of the association of “Parliamentarians for Al-Quds.”
During the two-day gathering, which was held a week before Israel’s newly instated ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na’eh, presented his credentials in Ankara, Erdoğan said, “Policies of oppression, deportation and discrimination have been increasingly continuing against our Palestinian brothers since 1948.”
In other words, he admitted to viewing Israel’s entire existence, since its establishment, as criminal. No relation whatsoever to the naval blockade that Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip, from which it withdrew completely in 2005, as a result of incessant terrorist attacks from the Turkish leader’s Hamas buddies.
Nevertheless, in 2010, Erdoğan—also chummy with the Muslim Brotherhood—instigated an attempt by “peace activists” to violate the blockade.
The incident that led to the six-year schism between Ankara and Jerusalem occurred when Israeli commandos who rappelled onto the Mavi Marmara—one of the “Free Gaza Flotilla” ships that set sail from Turkey and headed to the Hamas enclave with weapons disguised as “humanitarian goods”—were brutally attacked. When Israel Defense Forces’ soldiers fought back, nine Turkish activists were killed; a 10th died later of his wounds. The remaining vestige of long-gone kinship between the two countries was finally erased, and the ambassadors of both were recalled.
In 2013, then-U.S. President Barack Obama forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to Erdoğan—on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport, of all places. Before boarding his plane to return to America, Obama called Erdoğan and shoved his cell phone in Netanyahu’s hand.
Netanyahu gave in to Obama, of course. Yet Erdoğan (naturally) did not back down on any of his conditions for rapprochement. In addition to demanding $20 million in “compensation,” he insisted that Israel open the Gaza blockade to enable Hamas terrorists to roam freely in the Jewish state and commit mass murder, as they had been doing before being handed the entire area on a silver platter a full decade earlier.
Netanyahu could not agree to that, so the Turkey-Israel chasm remained vast. Until December 2015, that is, when a secret meeting was held in Switzerland between Turkish Foreign Ministry director-general Feridun Sinirlioğlu and then-newly appointed Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, accompanied by Netanyahu’s long-time special envoy to Turkey, Joseph Ciechanover, for the purpose of reaching a deal with the Turkish devil.
The only compromise that Erdoğan made was to consent not to prosecute Israeli brass in absentia for supposed war crimes related to the Mavi Marmara incident. Oh, and to ban Hamas terrorist Salah al-Arouri, mastermind of the 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in Gush Etzion, which sparked “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists and infrastructure in Gaza, from operating out of Turkey.
Until Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, the above was a typical scenario: To secure “peace,” Israel had to take all concrete action, while its Islamist “partner” got credit—and oodles of Western cash—for magnanimously accepting ill-gotten gains.
Today, the situation is completely different.
For one thing, unlike the Obama administration, Trump’s team is on Israel’s side in general, and in its forging of relations with regional Arab states, such as Egypt, in particular. Turkey, on the other hand, is on the outs with Cairo, since the ouster of the late President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood honcho.
For another, Turkey’s shunning of Israel after the Mavi Marmara affair left room for Jerusalem to strengthen ties with Greece and Cyprus, Erdoğan’s nemeses in the Mediterranean.
In a blatant act of belligerence in March, Turkey engaged in a mass military exercise, titled “Blue Homeland,” to convey to Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt that it would fight, literally and figuratively, to lay claim to the Eastern Mediterranean’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Then, last month, Ankara aroused the ire of Washington, Brussels and Cairo for drilling for gas in the EEZ.
It’s too early to tell whether Erdoğan is going to treat Imamoğlu’s election as he did the failed coup against him three years ago—by incarcerating anyone and everyone whom he suspects of disloyalty. But it is safe to say that the cracks in his armor are too severe to be dismissed as temporary. Now that Istanbul, home to 20 percent of the Turkish population, has been emboldened, it won’t take long for other areas of the country to follow.
The possibility of an end to the Erdoğan era is also great news for Israel, a mere two-hour flight away, but light years from the former friendship it used to enjoy with its Mediterranean neighbor.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”