Sunday, May 27, 2018

Occupier! Murderer! The Hypocritical War of Words on Gaza Between Israel and Turkey*

Haaretz: "The verbal volume of Erdogan’s attacks on Israel reflects genuine Turkish popular support for the Palestinians. But in a perilous election season it’s also cover for Turkey to maintain essential economic ties with Israel"

In what has become an almost scripted scene since the days of the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv in a response to the Israeli army’s killing of almost 60 Palestinians protesting at the Gaza border. 

Within 24 hours, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also told the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and its consul general in Istanbul to leave, with Israel responding by expelling Turkey’s envoy at its Jerusalem consulate.

With the diplomatic relations between the two countries in free fall, PM Netanyahu took to Twitter to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of supporting Hamas, and declaring that "he well understands terrorism and slaughter..." and that "he not preach morality." 

Erdogan struck the ball hard back into Netanyahu’s court, tweetingthat Israel is an apartheid state and that Netanyahu “has the blood of Palestinians on his hands,” suggesting that he take a lesson in humanity by reading the Ten Commandments. 

Later, in another tweet he defended Hamas, defining it as a resistance movement that "defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power."

Netanyahu answered back in Hebrew that Israel won’t be lectured to by the leader of a country that occupies Northern Cyprus, invades Syria and has the blood of “countless Kurds” on his hands.

The mud-slinging by Netanyahu and Erdogan is both aggressive and defensive, because both countries have a long list of human rights violations, and in this sense, Israel and Turkey are like two peas in a pod.

Perhaps the main difference is that when Israel commits crimes they are often caught on camera. With the dismal state of journalism and freedoms in Turkey, victims of Turkish state violence, often Kurdish civilians, do not make the headlines, with their stories buried within human rights organization reports. 

Both states are guilty of applying extreme violence, in the past and present, and in that sense are quite similar, even if the conflicts they are dealing with are very different in nature. However, it’s necessary to point out is that the two countries’ relations have never been based on each other’s upholding of civil and human rights. 

Israel calling out Turkey on Kurdish rights and for being an occupying power essentially confirms its own state crimes. And, while it would preposterous to claim Turkey does not care for Palestinian rights, under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has shown time and again that for relations to continue with Israel, it has to avoid violent outbursts, keeping it to a minimum. Turkey has never made ending the (violent) occupation as a condition for Turkish-Israeli relations.   

With elections coming up in just over a month, there are accusations that Erdogan is exploiting Palestinian suffering to bolster his unsteady campaign. But as Palestine is regarded by a not insubstantial proportion of Turks as practically a domestic issue, and a cause of genuine concern and solidarity, Erdogan’s retaliatory actions won’t go unnoticed, or unappreciated, by his constituency. 

However, the idea his determined stance on Palestine will win him the election ignores the fact that Erdogan is, out of wider geopolitical considerations, not able, even if he wished, to engage in a full-throated campaign against Israel. That leads him open to charges of mere lip-service to the Palestinian cause; his performatively noisy actions this week on the diplomatic front are a form of damage control.

Erdogan not only faces strong objections within his own camp to Turkey’s significant economic ties with Israel, but also has to weather calls by opposition forces who accuse him at every given moment of hypocrisy: he curses Israel, removes ambassadors, but never cuts economic ties. Indeed, Tuesday, Erdogan's AKP party struck down a call in parliament by the mostly Kurdish HDP to cancel all economic, military, and political agreements with Israel.

This need to actively demonstrate his identification with Palestinians while keeping ties with Israel viable is what motivates Erdogan to concrete steps in the public sphere, such as his announcement of a mass demonstration this Friday after prayers, and to declare days of national mourning, as he has also done in the past. 

Such actions allow Erdogan and his party to assert a tight grip, at least rhetorically, over the issue of Palestine. In a country where sympathy with the Palestinians is decades old and is strong enough to facilitate odd partnerships, such as between secular leftists and Islamists, Erdogan needs to keep a monopoly over the issue of Palestine. That allows him to maintain his balancing act between ongoing economic relations with Israel, and his status as being the sole leader in the Middle East (and arguably almost in the world) defending Palestinian rights.

This reality is exhibited by the fact that unlike Arab states who are still in a formal state of war with Israel, and those present Arab states cozying up to Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey does not boycott Israel.

Rather it has done the exact opposite, such as entrenching its national airlines, Turkish Airlines, into Israeli tourism, last year breaking a record of carrying over a million passengers to and from Ben-Gurion airport.

It is on these airlines that not only Turkish Jews come back and forth, but also Turkish secular Muslims looking to party in Tel Aviv; they sit together with American Jewish tourists, mixing also with Turkish pro-Palestinian activists who do not buy into the BDS campaign, but rather fly into Tel Aviv in order to take up Erdogan’s own advice to visit the Holy City of Al-Quds.    

In fact, it would seems safe to say that Turkey found, following the previous suspension of relations with Israel that being cut off from Palestinians came with a cost; true, rhetoric is nice, but they only can extend their soft power within the Palestinian camp, and the Middle East, by retaining (good) relations with Israel. 

Despite the absence of a reliable crystal ball, it seems certain that the strong economic ties between Israel and Turkey will be able to weather this storm. However, on the political front, the tit-for-tat rhetoric shot back and forth from Ankara and Jerusalem could, if they are not careful, break the scripted model of downgrading diplomatic relations and removing ambassadors, retaining ties, and then working to overcome the differences. 

Both Netanyahu and Erdogan have reason to feel empowered.

The Israeli economy is continuing to see stability and growth, its alliance with Saudi Arabia and Gulf States against Iran, gives it a new sense of strength, making Turkey relatively less important. Further, Netanyahu seems to have understood already during the 2016 reconciliation between the two countries, that Turkey now needs Israel; and not vice-versa.

As for Erdogan, even if he is clearly not interested in hurting mutual economic ties, he will have been fortified by his pride at the special place as loud advocate he holds among many Palestinians. World outrage at the Gaza death toll, that he is not alone in his quest against Israel, gives him a tailwind and may lead him to push too hard. And confronting a surprisingly perilous position in the upcoming Turkish polls, there is always the chance that Erdogan will choose escalation as a sure source of political capital.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on May, 16 2018. Click here for the link.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

After 15 Years, Is Turkey Saying 'Enough' to Erdogan?*

Haaretz: "If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside.' Erdogan's gaffe opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and gifted a slogan to a re-invigorated political opposition. But he won't give way without a fight."

"If one day our nation says 'enough,' then we will step aside," Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday in a speech in parliament, and opened the gates of Turkish social media derision and activism.

#Tamam ("Enough") took off like wildfire and became a trending Twitter topic worldwide, with over two million tweets telling Erdogan that, indeed, they have had enough of him. As journalist Rusen Cakir noted, the increasingly autocratic Erdogan had, strangely, just "offered the opposition a slogan to unite behind."

And they did, with the major political opposition heads tweeting the hashtag and declaring that the time had come.

That rare gaffe by Erdogan may be a sign of an unfamiliar stress the Turkish leader, and that he is, for now, facing the greatest challenge to his political survival since coming to power: Elections, with a newly revitalized opposition, are a month away.

It's almost three weeks since Erdogan declared snap presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24, more than a year earlier than scheduled.

That ended several months of speculation that signs of a major economic crisis in Turkey might trigger early elections. Some predict Erdogan and his party will benefit from the wave of Turkish nationalism that surged in the wake of a general consensus in Turkey that the military campaign against Kurdish forces in Afrin, northern Syria, succeeded in its objectives.

Early elections also will allow the ruling AKP party to pre-empt, if not arrest, the growing momentum of the new opposition party, "Iyi" (Good), led by Meral Aksener.

This party offers a new home to those nationalists who are abandoning the MHP in the wake of its leader’s 180 degree u-turn from opposing Erdogan to becoming his staunch ally. Despite Erdogan’s denials, many believe the speed with which the snap elections were called was an attempt by the AKP to sideline the Iyi party. That went hand-in-hand with speculation that the timing provided convenient grounds to disqualify the Aksener's party from running, because it had been registered less than the mandatory six-month period prior to elections.

Amidst fears the Iyi party might be disqualified, the main CHP opposition party stepped up to ensure Iyi’s participation. The CHP transferred 15 of its own parliamentarians to the Iyi party’s bloc of five (defectors from the MHP) entitling it to run in the election, regardless of its registration date.

Had the AKP been outsmarted? It certainly seems so, but the real importance of the move was that it exemplified a rare moment where the Turkish opposition at long last set the agenda.

The CHP’s move naturally opened the door for an alliance with the Iyi Party, and was followed by them joining forces with two smaller parties, the Muslim conservative party Saadet (the political home from which Erdogan himself emerged before launching the AKP in the early 2000s),  and another smaller faction, the Demokrat Party. Importantly, the alliance will let those two smaller Saadet and Demokrat parties to jump over the decades-old high ten-percent threshold.

The elephant in the room of course is the fact that the HDP, the mostly Kurdish party, was left out of the opposition alliance.

When the HDP crossed the vote threshold in the June 2015 elections, it pushed Erdogan's AKP into a corner for the first time since coming to power in 2002.

Erdogan faced a choice: to agree to be partner to a coalition government or call snap elections. It did the latter, and in the November 2015 elections the AKP swept enough votes to once again rule alone. With renewed fighting between Turkey and the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish separatist party, the HDP has been under attackand all but delegitimized by the state; its candidate for president and former co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtas, along with eight of its MPs are all behind bars.        
Bringing the Kurdish-majority party into the alliance may never have been on the bloc’s agenda. But their exclusion was a deliberate ploy by the mainstream opposition parties not to risk losing the nationalist vote, the Iyi party’s main constituency.

If the opposition alliance plays its cards right, a majority vote - or at least a vote that greatly closes the large gap between the AKP and the opposition - could be in reach for the first time in a decade and a half. If the HDP gets makes it, that will cut into the AKP’s piece of the pie in the upcoming parliament, something the opposition alliance itself recognizes.

As much as this election is about each party galvanizing its own constituency, the overriding need to strategize and build informal coalitions is just as important.

That strategic horse-trading is a crucial window into what kind of coalition might be formed after the elections. However, it’s complicated by the fact that there are two election campaigns in train simultaneously, for the president and for the legislature.

The presidential election is even more crucial than usual because the executive presidential laws, legitimated by last year’s referendum come into effect after the elections. That means the president will appoint all government ministers in the next parliament, and that cabinet will no longer be answerable to parliament, which will continue to be the legislative authority despite the limiting of its powers.

Although it seems a long shot in a political and media context that systematically privileges Erdogan, the opposition is also gearing up cleverly for the presidential elections.

First, they rightly refrained from choosing a joint candidate. One of the names floated for this was Abdullah Gul, a founder of the AKP and a former president; however, it was far from clear that this soft-spoken politician, who has opted for a passive resistance to Erdogan, could ever get to the necessary 50% in the first round.

Instead, all the opposition parties will run their own candidates; each camp can rile up their own base without compromising their messages. The thinking is they will then stand a better chance of pushing Erdogan into a second round vote.  

The stand-out presidential opposition candidate for now is the CHP’s Muharrem Ince. He is a fighter with a sharp tongue who can stand up to the charismatic Erdogan. Close behind is the Iyi party’s Meral Aksener, who would also be sure to keep the government on its toes, and some predict could even lead in the votes. In the 2014 presidential elections the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas received almost 10% of the vote and it seems that his chances to reach the same number this time, is certainly in range – even though he is submitting his candidature from jail

A second-round of voting for the president is thus likely, as long as the parties succeed in energizing each of their bases and the vote is further split with small percentages for the Saadet Party and other minor candidates will attract. That vote would take place two weeks later, on July 8.

And Ince knows that if this happens, his best chance to challenge Erdogan in a run off is to reach out to the Kurdish vote. Since the start of his campaign, Ince has sent strong signals to the HDP; he has publicly demanded Demirtas’ release, and this week held a meeting with him in prison.

While the new opposition stirrings will be brushed off by some as a return to the 1990s politics of endless coalition-building, this old-new dynamic has one cause above all: Erdogan’s usurping of more and more power  to the dismay of many Turkish citizens. Despite Erdogan’s popularity in certain sections of the population, the AKP is very publicly failing to deal with an ever-weaker economy.

That means its veneer of untouchability is tarnishing; and that it is beginning to resemble the very parties it threw out in 2002, who were deeply resented due to their bad economic policies and incompetence at connecting to the electorate.

There are other signs that the AKP’s momentum is stalling. Apart from Erdogan, the main faces of the AKP today are far from being charismatic campaigners or crowd-pleasers, but rather robotic mouthpieces for their boss. That same uninspiring cadre led the AKP to lose the vote in every major city, including Istanbul, in the referendum.  

There is a sense in Turkey that the political winds might be starting to turn against the AKP, and that Erdogan, the leader that has ruled for 16 years, miscalculated the political map when calling early elections.

True, the opposition does not have a magic wand to remove the many obstacles it faces, not least lifting the draconian State of Emergency, effecting the release of the HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas, or claiming their legitimate right for equal mainstream media time. It also cannot influence the election board’s strangely lenient policy toward counting questionable ballots, as we saw in the last referendum.

However, despite the obstacles, and for the first time in years, the opposition is certainly giving the AKP a run for its money; as the millions who viewed, shared and participated in the #Tamam campaign shows, their grassroots support is substantial and their opposition to the president emphatic.    

But Erdogan hasn’t survived this long and centralized power so determinedly to let that opposition narrative play out. The more he feels the heat, the more efforts will made to delegitimize the opposition and to place new obstacles in their way

*This article appeared in Haaretz on May, 10 2018. Click here for the link