Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's outburst at The World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, in which he called Israeli President Shimon Peres a baby killer and much besides before stomping off the stage in a huff has served as a sort of Rorschach inkblot test for many observers, with supporters of Israel being roundly critical of the Turkish Prime Minister and critics of Israel being broadly supportive of his actions.
Perhaps more interesting has been the various ways in which Erdogan's Davos theatrics have served as a prism for understanding both transformations in Turkey under the AKP and their repercussions for both Turkish Jewry and for Turkey's relations with Israel.
The first thing to note regarding Erdogan's outburst is that it is very much in keeping with his public persona. Erdogan's famous temper is both a remarkable tool for cowing political opponents and journalists and a fundamental aspect of his charisma, which borrows much from his urban, working class roots. Regardless of whether his outburst was planned or not, it played extremely well in Turkey, where support for Palestinian rights runs across the political spectrum and where public outrage at the violence in Gaza was universal. A public defense of both Palestinian rights and Turkish honor could only serve Erdogan well in the upcoming local elections on March 29.
Many observers have seen in the Davos spat, signs of a larger shift in Turkish – Israeli relations and, indeed, continued public sniping in the wake of the Davos conference points to outstanding tensions. Nonetheless, it needs to be underlined that the Turkish – Israeli alliance is, from the Turkish perspective at least, very much a marriage of convenience and not of love. Thus it has been since its inception and thus it will be for the foreseeable future. It is, however, also true that successive Turkish governments have had to negotiate this relationship under greater public scrutiny. While there was always a certain sympathy for the Palestinian cause, Turkish public interest and concern for the issue of Palestinian rights has grown dramatically since the first Intifada. It was after all, the intensely secular Bulent Ecevit (then Prime Minister) who, in 2002, described Israeli actions in Jenin as "a genocide." While it is certainly true that Islamists have tried to make political hay out of the Israeli – Turkish alliance, they have done so precisely because the alliance is unpopular. That being said, the marriage has proven remarkably durable and the AKP has, for all of its efforts to expand relations with its Arab neighbors and Iran, not taken any significant steps to diminish its economic and security ties with Israel. Under the AKP, trade and tourism have both increased and Turkish – Israeli military relations remain, despite recent grousing over Gaza, remarkably strong. If the AKP has been publicly critical of Israel, it has been so without taking any concrete actions to change the status quo. And in this, at least, it is maintaining a longstanding aspect of Turkish – Israeli relations.
For some observers, the AKP's increased ties with Iran and its Arab neighbors are part of a zero-sum game that means Turkey's alliance with Israel is crumbling and, more broadly, that it is pulling away from its western allies. There is, I think, something particularly weird and perhaps a little disingenuous about this portrayal, which attempts to frame the AKP as "anti-Western" in character. The AKP has shown a remarkable willingness to overturn long-held foreign policy taboos and has gone further than any previous Turkish government in addressing the outstanding problems of Cyprus and relations with the Republic of Armenia. For all the many failings of its political liberalization efforts, the AKP has moved further towards meeting EU criteria than any previous government and has done so under withering criticism from both the political opposition and the Turkish military. To be sure, the AKP has also been aggressive in building its ties with the wider Middle East and taken an increasingly active role in the region. For some this, in and of itself, is suspect. But if the AKP has been aggressive in reaching out to its neighbors, it is also continuing a process that began more than a decade ago and, from my perspective, stems from the collapse of the Cold War system in the Middle East. I have seen many op-eds arguing that this is "scary." I do not believe I have yet to read one that has argued it is disadvantageous to Turkey's security or economic interests.
Finally, I think it worth while to consider the question of what Erdogan's outburst at Davos says about anti-Semitism in Turkey. A number of writers have argued that the AKP has nurtured anti-Semitism in Turkey. While Erdogan has made public statements against anti-Semitism in the past, calling it a "crime against humanity," his own words at Davos, in which he quoted the sixth commandment and Gilad Atzmon (identified, not as an Israeli, but as "a Jew"), demonstrate a not particularly unusual conflation of Jewish and Israeli identity. If this conflation is hardly limited to anti-Semites, it is also one that gives the Jewish community of Turkey little reason for comfort. There is no question that the recent crisis in Gaza has left Turkey's twenty-thousand or so Jewish citizens feeling even more targeted than normal.
That being said, the trope of "Turkish tolerance" is more myth than historical reality and the question of anti-Semitism is not limited to the religious right. Research by Corry Guttstadt has largely deflated the image of Turkey protecting European Jews during the Holocaust, while work by Rifat Bali and others have shown the extent to which Jews were actively pushed out of public life. European anti-Semitism was already part and parcel of Turkish nationalism at the founding of the Republic and – more importantly - was woven into the fabric of a nationalism that defined Muslim identity as a prerequisite to membership in the nation even as it rejected outward religiosity. In this sense, the key issue for Turkey domestically is less anti-Semitism per se, than a general sense that non-Muslims are "native foreigners."
This has, I think, become more pronounced in recent years but the blame lies as much with militant secularists as it does with Islamists. Militant Kemalists, particularly, have used denial of the Armenian genocide as a means of demonstrating that they are better defenders of the national honor than the AKP. Accusations that political opponents are "secret Jews or Armenians," long a staple of the Islamist fringe are now used against AKP politicians as well. Observers who point to a growing culture of intolerance in Turkey are certainly correct. Suggesting that this is simply the outcome of a secret Islamist agenda on the part of the AKP is, however, deeply misleading.
Howard Eissenstat is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandies University.