Erdogan to Arab League: Israel to 'Pay a Price'

Turkey's Prime Minister receives a hero's welcome in Cairo.

Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey used his visit to Egypt on Monday to further “cement” his position as the new leader of the Sunni Arab world with a blistering attack against Israel. Continuing his anti-Israeli campaign, Erdogan told a meeting of the 22-member Arab League in Cairo that Israel had to “pay a price for its aggression and crimes,” stoking the flames higher regarding a military confrontation between his country and the Jewish state. Last Friday, the Turkish prime minister had threatened to send Turkish warships to escort the next Gaza flotilla and to block gas exploration plans by Cyprus and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean.

“This is very high-stakes poker,” said Henri Barkey, an international relations professor at Lehigh University. “It’s very, very dangerous.”

Turkey is ostensibly angry that Israel has refused to apologize for the deaths of nine Turks, who were killed when Israeli commandos stormed a flotilla last year that was trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. In Cairo, Erdogan described the Israeli raid as “cause for war” and called the Gaza issue a “matter of humanity.”

But a recent United Nations (UN) report found Israel’s blockade legal. As a result, Turkey has declared the report it once awaited “null and void” and now plans to challenge its findings in the International Criminal Court. Last week, the Turkish government expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut all military ties with the country it had enjoyed close relations with for many years.

With his anti-Israeli stand, Erdogan has become “the most popular figure across the Arab world.” The welcome Erdogan received at Cairo’s airport appeared to confirm his popularity. According to one report, “at least 20,000 people” were on hand to greet him, waving posters sporting his picture. One sign held by a supporter ominously read: “If Erdogan had been our leader we would have liberated our Jerusalem.” More posters with photos of the Turkish prime minister decorated Cairo’s streets.

In his anti-Israel message in Cairo, Erdogan reminded Egyptians that Israeli forces had recently killed five Egyptian policemen, inflaming what was already an emotional issue in Egypt as well as the anti-Israeli feeling that runs deep in some segments of Egyptian society. The policemen’s deaths had actually occurred during a Palestinian terrorist attack against Israel, in which Israeli lives were also lost.

With such a large anti-Israeli audience in Egypt, some members of which had recently attacked the Israeli embassy, it is not surprising Erdogan played the Palestinian card again. Besides calling for the end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, he also urged the countries present at the Arab League meeting to support the Palestinians’ bid for statehood next month at the UN. He called their support “an obligation.”

“Let’s raise the flag of Palestine to the sky and let it be a symbol of justice and peace in the Middle East,” he told the delegates.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won Turkey’s elections last June with a popular vote of nearly 50 percent. With such command and support at home, Erdogan now feels secure enough to embark on a foreign policy, termed neo-Ottoman, that would see Turkey establish itself as the Middle East’s primary political and military power with himself as leader. Under the Ottoman Empire, Turkey had once ruled the Arab lands. To achieve this goal of re-establishing Turkish primacy, Erdogan appears to be using a carefully calculated strategy.

The Turkish president’s trip to Cairo is probably a part of that strategy. His appearance in a leadership role before the Arab states in Egypt was symbolic. With his threats against Israel and throwing his weight behind the Palestinian statehood issue, the Turkish leader is demonstrating his country’s new-found strength, while emphasising the host country’s increasing weakness. With its 80 million people and large military, Egypt had been considered the heart and leader of the Arab world. But the growing widespread political and economic unrest in the country, against which it has been powerless to act, has weakened it badly and undermined its once prominent position. So while Egypt sat quietly, no longer a leadership rival, Erdogan showed in Cairo his country is ready to assume that mantle. He was also demonstrating his new foreign policy direction, in that Turkey had returned to the Arab lands after a long absence.

And one of the things Erdogan wants to accomplish in Turkey's leadership role is to use the “Sunni block” of Arab countries, and possibly Pakistan, to confront Shiite Iran, the other Muslim country in the Middle East, with a claim to regional leadership. Before Turkey’s recent anti-Israeli pronouncements, Iran had been confronting Israel through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran heads a “Shiite Crescent” that extends from Lebanon through Syria and into Iraq and has been challenging a militarily weaker Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Islamic world, a challenge the Sunni Arab countries had found threatening.

But the great unknown in Middle Eastern politics is the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Turkey’s fears about its Shiite neighbour acquiring nuclear missiles are so great, it has accepted a NATO-run early-warning radar system on its territory. These concerns about missile attacks even caused it to reach a deal with NATO about sharing data from the Turkey-based site with Israel.

It is Turkey’s focus, however, on the Middle East’s other regional power, Israel, which is getting all the media attention. Some may believe Erdogan will never act on his recent threats or seek a military showdown with Israel, since that would involve a confrontation with the United States. One German observer states Turkey is using harsh, confrontational anti-Israel rhetoric simply as a means to establish itself as the most important power in the Middle East and gain credibility in Arab eyes.

But this does not take into account the Turkish leadership’s hatred for Israel. Its anti-Semitism was on display recently when Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Nikolay Mladenov, criticised Turkey for expelling Israel’s ambassador. A senior aide to Turkey’s foreign minister faulted Mladenov’s alleged “assertive tone,” saying it was due to his “reportedly Jewish background.”

“He [Erdogan] hates us,” said Gabby Levy, Israel’s former ambassador to Turkey. “He hates us religiously and his hatred is spreading.”

By not acting against Israel after its tough words, Turkey also risks losing whatever credibility in Arab circles it has gained, as well as any claim to leadership in the Middle East. Turkish inaction against Israel on Palestine would cause Arabs to regard the Turkish government like their own: paper tigers that have kept them on a war footing against Israel for almost 40 years without ever militarily challenging the Jewish state. A Middle Eastern Muslim country with a claim to leadership now cannot engage in a conflict with Israel consisting only of words. It would be recognized as the same dead end.

Turkey has also threatened to take action if Cyprus starts to explore for natural gas. Turkey opposes the move, saying the gas also belongs to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, and Greek Cypriots have no right to exploit it. This has also served to raise tensions and the prospect of conflict, especially since it could involve billions of dollars.

The Obama administration is trying to restore relations between Israel and Turkey, since it regards both as valuable allies, but most likely to no avail. After Egypt, Erdogan will visit Libya and Tunisia. And upon his return to Ankara, one can expect Turkey to end its war of words in this “high stakes” and “very, very dangerous” poker game and up the ante to the point where a shootout is unavoidable.