When it comes to bashing Israel, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an old hand. He was at it even before he took power in March 2003, castigating the Israeli Defense Force for breaking Palestinians’ heads in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus. He became a hero in the Arab world two years ago when he stormed out of a Davos panel discussion after snarling at Israeli President Shimon Peres: “You know very well how to kill.”
But last week his vitriol reached a new level. In response to Israel’s continued refusal to apologize for its deadly 2010 commando raid on a Turkish-owned aid vessel en route to Gaza, he broke off diplomatic and military relations in all but name, accused Israel of “running wild” and behaving “like a spoiled child,” promised to take the case to the International Court of Justice, and swore that in the future all Turkish aid shipments to Gaza would have naval escorts. “We will not allow anyone to walk all over our honor,” he fumed.
His talk of trampled honor and gunboats raises the question of who exactly is the spoiled child. Still, there’s method to Erdogan’s heated talk. It’s about something more than justice for the nine activists who were killed aboard the Mavi Marmara as they challenged Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The Iraq War and the Arab Spring have created a regional power vacuum, and Erdogan is determined to fill it.
In the past decade he has transformed Turkey, presiding over phenomenal economic growth and excluding the previously all-powerful Army from national politics. Now he’s out to bring similarly sweeping change to the entire region. After winning a third term in office this June by a larger-than-ever majority, Erdogan portrayed himself as a neo-Ottoman savior. “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara!” he told cheering crowds at a victory speech in the capital. “The West Bank and Jerusalem won as much as [Turkish Kurdistan’s leading city] Diyarbakir!”
In line with that expansive vision, Erdogan is championing the one issue that everyone in the Middle East—everyone other than Israel, that is—can agree on: the rights of blockaded Gaza. He has praised Hamas as “resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land” and called the blockade “a crime against humanity.” Many Israelis view him as a mortal enemy of their country. The latest document spill from WikiLeaks includes an October 2009 U.S. Embassy cable quoting Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, Gabby Levy, on his assessment of Erdogan: “Levy dismissed political calculation as a motivator for Erdogan’s hostility, arguing the prime minister’s party had not gained a single point in the polls from his bashing of Israel. Instead, Levy attributed Erdogan’s harshness to deep-seated emotion: ‘He’s a fundamentalist. He hates us religiously’ and his hatred is spreading.”
Yet the notion of Erdogan as a Jew-hating jihadi doesn’t really fit. Just before the current standoff, Erdogan sat down to dinner with the leaders of Turkey’s religious minorities, including the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, and promised to return thousands of properties the Turkish state had confiscated from Christians and Jews in the past century. He also made a point of praising the “vast diversity of the people that have peacefully coexisted” in Istanbul. “In this city the [Muslim] call to prayer and church bells sound together,” said Erdogan. “Mosques, churches, and synagogues have stood side by side on the same street for centuries.”
Skeptics might dismiss that attempt at ecumenicalism as just sweet-sounding bunkum. But what’s very real—and a surer indicator of where his priorities really lie—is Erdogan’s decision this month to let NATO deploy antimissile radars near the Turkish-Iranian border. Tehran is predictably furious. “We expect friendly countries and neighbors … not to promote policies that create tension, which will definitely have complicated consequences,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast. In the past, Erdogan has often called President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “my good friend,” and he recently opposed new U.N. sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear program. But when push came to shove, Erdogan sided with Turkey’s friends in NATO, not in Iran.
His aim is no less than to rescue the entire Middle East from poverty and dictatorship. To those who know him well, that crusade—for want of a better term—is a direct extension of his personal religious conviction. “He’s a very moral man, very serious about righting injustices,” says one associate of the past 20 years. “If you ask if that is rooted in his personal view of Islam, the answer is yes.”
Even so, Turkey’s neighbors and allies worry that Erdogan’s latest face-?off with Israel could be the start of a new foreign policy, one that focuses on hard power instead of soft. Up to now, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has pursued a policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” full of touchy-feely confidence-building measures like joint historical commissions with Armenia, visa-free travel with Syria, airport-building contracts with Georgia, cultural exchanges with Greece, and the like. But Ankara’s stance seems to have suddenly turned tough. Turkish jets have bombed separatist Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains of northern Iraq, killing an estimated 160 people, according to the Turkish military. Davutoglu has begun publicly calling for Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to step down. And during a planned visit to Egypt this week, Erdogan says he intends to cross the border into Gaza—a move guaranteed to infuriate Israel.
Saner voices in Israel are trying to downplay the war of words. “The main thing is not to get confused, not to get into a tailspin,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio last week. “Turkey is not about to become an enemy of Israel, and we have no cause to waste invective and energy over this.” The trouble is that Erdogan gets so much out of confronting Israel: not only does it raise his stature in the region, but it also dovetails with his self-image as a fighter for justice. That gives him little incentive to let the matter rest—especially since he’s been at it for so many years.