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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruffled the feathers of Israeli officials and the U.S. government by including Zionism in the same category as fascism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The remarks, made last week during the UN Alliance of Civilization Conference, came as newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry was due to visit the region. Further, the remarks run against the grain of recent reports that Israel and Turkey are preparing to patch up their fractious relationship. Despite being roundly criticized by Israeli and American officials, Erdogan’s comments drew some support at home and in the region.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s comments on anti-Semitism came in the context of a broader discussion by the prime minister on Western attitudes toward Islamism. Erdogan expressed the concern that the current wave of ‘Islamophobia’ evident in Europe and in the United States prejudged the relationship of Muslim countries with the West, adding that “Islamophobia must be recognized as a crime against humanity in the same fashion that Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism should be, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday....slamming politicians who use communication tools to deepen the gap between cultures.”
The reaction from Washington was swift. During a visit with the Turkish Foreign Minister and later with Mr. Erdogan, Secretary Kerry condemned the remarks while emphasizing the importance of the alliance between the U.S. and Turkey, and urged a closer relationship between Israel and Turkey: “Given the many challenges that the neighborhood faces, it is essential that both Turkey and Israel find a way to take steps ... to rekindle their historic cooperation,’ Kerry said. ‘I think that’s possible but obviously we have to get beyond the kind of rhetoric that we’ve just seen recently.’”
In Israel, the Jerusalem Post editorial called Erdogan’s attempt to portray Zionism as a crime against humanity ‘outrageous,’ while decrying the lack of condemnation from the rest of the world: “The world’s tepid response appears to be the lamentable product of a sustained and largely successful delegitimization effort, at least since the UN General Assembly’s infamous 1975 Resolution 3379, which singled out one form of nationalism — the Jewish variety — as ‘a form of racism and racial discrimination.’... Even Israel’s harshest critics such as Noam Chomsky acknowledged in 1975 the ‘profound hypocrisy’ of a UN resolution that equated Zionism alone with racism ‘given the nature of the states that backed it.’”
There are also indications that Erdogan’s remarks and Turkey’s recently hostile attitude toward Israel is beginning to have an effect on U.S. military aid to Turkey. Despite assurances to the contrary, it is difficult to interpret news, reported by the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, of a temporary halt on the donation of a U.S. frigate to Turkey as anything other than a warning from the U.S. government: “A U.S bill anticipating the donation of two frigates to Turkey with the authorization of President Barack Obama has failed due to technical, not political, reasons, according to Turkish diplomatic sources. The bill is expected to be re-introduced to the House in the next legislative term, according to sources. ...’There was no political decision involved, this was solely a technical matter,’ the sources added, referring to Washington-based rumors that the bill was blocked thanks to efforts by Greek, Armenian and Jewish lobbies.”
Still, Erdogan’s comments have resonated with many in the region who sympathize with the prime minister’s remarks. For example, the Saudi Gazette editorial asserts that judging by Israel’s policies of the last few decades inspired by the Zionist ideology, Erdogan could not be any more right: “For the last 65 years, Zionists have pursued a calculated policy to drive Palestinians from their own borders and since 1967 have implemented via their illegal settlement program a campaign to pauperize the inhabitants of the West Bank.... [T]here can be little doubt that what has been done to the Palestinian people since even before 1948 represents a crime against humanity....The seizure of other people’s land in contravention of international law, the construction of illegal fortress-like settlements that divide up Palestine and the imposition of harsh military rule and economic sanctions on the luckless population are indeed very ‘dark.’”
There is another narrative, however, that goes against the grain of recent statements coming from Erdogan and other Turkish officials, and which points to a sizeable shift in the foreign policy of the two countries toward rapprochement. Giving credence to such voices, in an article for the Palestinian Maan News, Ramzy Baroud recently suggested “Turkish-Israeli relations are being carefully, but decidedly repaired. This stands in contrast with declared Turkish foreign policy and the many passionate statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other leading Turkish politicians....Neither Turkey and Israel, nor the U.S. and NATO are able to sustain the status quo — the rift between Israel and Turkey — for much longer. But returning to an old paradigm, where Turkey is no longer an advocate of Palestinian rights and a champion of Arab and Muslim causes, could prove even more costly.”
One would have thought that, given this push for an improvement of ties between the two countries, Erdogan would have refrained from making any such remarks considered incendiary by the Israeli government. But there are those though who believe that such comments might actually speed up the closing of the gap between Israel and Turkey. As Today’s Zaman’s Abdullah Bozkurt points out in his op-ed for the Turkish daily, “Erdogan's remarks on Zionism at the UN Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna on Wednesday may actually hasten efforts to repair ties between Turkey and Israel.... I believe this will put the urgency of the healing process between the former allies back on the agenda more forcefully than ever before.... I think this incident will actually push the Israeli establishment to a quick realization that maintaining the status quo with the hope of preventing ties from getting worse is no longer working.”
Not everyone is convinced by such arguments and some believe that the relationship between the two countries will not improve until Erdogan relinquishes the helm of Turkish politics. According to Smadar Peri of the Yedioth Ahronoth, while the attitudes between the two peoples are cordial and friendly, Erdogan’s personal animosity towards the Jewish state will make impossible and such short-term rapprochement: “Ever since Erdogan took office 10 years ago, Turkey, which adopted the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy, has been on a path of minimizing relations. Erdogan is doing one thing right: Every time he attacks us, his stock as the king of the Arab street soars....After the latest verbal attack, it is hard to imagine that anyone in Israel still believes the relations with Turkey can be improved while Erdogan is still in office....However, despite the venomous attacks, it is only logical that at some point Erdogan's ‘it's all personal’ policy will erased and, all at once, Israel and Turkey will become closer.”
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