Jon Weinberg is a research intern at the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force.
In a meeting with his Justice and Development (AK) party Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, expressed that he prefers meeting Omar Hassan al-Bashir, President of the Sudan, to meeting Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, despite the fact that the International Criminal Court has charged the former with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Erdogan rationalized this preference by explaining that “I cannot discuss this with Netanyahu but I can easily discuss such issues with Omar al-Bashir. I can say to his face: What you are doing is wrong.” This is hardly surprising considering Erdogan’s public opposition to Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s incursion into Gaza last December and January. During the World Economic Forum’s Davos Conference in January, for instance, Erdogan walked out of a televised debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres after shouting “you’re killing people.”
On the other hand, the prime minister’s declaration that “It is not possible for those who belong to the Muslim faith to carry out genocide” was rather tactless. It makes him sound naïve and feeds fears that the Islamic character of his AK party threatens the secular character of the Turkish republic.
Most importantly, it is unclear why Erdogan had to compare Israel to the Sudan in the first place. Cast Lead and the Darfur conflict differ greatly in size, scope, duration, and implementation. Erdogan could have simultaneously expressed his desire to maintain close ties with both Israel and the Sudan, as well as his concern for both countries’ treatment of ethnic minorities without becoming a blatant apologist for one country and scathing critic of the other.
Earlier yesterday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “urged Turkey to maintain good relations with Israel, in order to mediate Damascus-Jerusalem peace negotiations.” Regardless of what Israel has or has not done in Gaza, Erdogan risks Turkey’s reputation as an honest broker and peacemaker if he continues to treat Middle East diplomacy as a zero-sum game between Israel and Muslim countries.
All told, in addition to other daring moves like excluding Israel from a NATO exercise in central Turkey last month, Erdogan’s statements yesterday are emblematic of mounting tensions between Israel and Turkey – and perhaps indicative of a bigger shift in Turkish foreign policy.
— Jon Weinberg