michael koplow
May 23 2018

Turkey’s Erdoğan playing high stakes election game with Israel and United States

As predictably as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, Israel and Turkey are once again in a war of words over Israeli actions in Gaza.

Following the Israeli response to demonstrations in Gaza and the killing by Israeli troops of Hamas fighters and Palestinian demonstrators at the border fence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians responded with their own broadsides about Erdoğan’s moral standing to lecture Israel.

Compounding the verbal battle were the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – which led Turkey to recall its ambassador not only from Israel, but from Washington as well – and the issue looming over all of this, namely Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.

Using Israel as a punch bag in order to win votes is the most reliable trick in Erdoğan’s electoral playbook, and one he has used to great effect for a decade with few consequences suffered in return. Given the double election and the fact that Turkey’s opposition is more unified against Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) than at any time during the past 15 years, going after Israel seems like an easy way to elevate an issue that moves Turkish voters of all stripes. Yet despite this pattern having repeated multiple times in the recent past, Erdoğan is taking a risk this time as a result of three variables that were absent the previous times he made Israel a domestic political issue.

Firstly, Israel is upset about Turkey’s growing influence in East Jerusalem and its role in causing unrest. In the past few years, Turkey’s presence in Jerusalem has expanded as a result of Turkish government investment in construction projects and Islamic charitable foundations.

Turkey has also played an instrumental role in protests centred around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, most prominently last July when Turkey paid to bus thousands of protestors to Jerusalem from around the country. Turkish influence has come at the expense of Jordanian and even Palestinian Authority influence in the city, and Israel views those latter parties as agents of stability compared to Turkey, which it views as looking to radicalise East Jerusalem residents and institutions.

The Israeli government is more likely to seize upon any opening that Erdoğan provides it to limit Turkey’s presence in Israel and the West Bank than it has in the past, and whereas many Israeli politicians recognise that Erdoğan’s attacks on Israel are directly tied to Turkey’s election, that understanding is not going to win any sympathy for Erdoğan.

Secondly, the Turkish economy is in far more dire straits now than at any point in the past five years, making Erdoğan’s jabs at Israel a riskier proposition than in the past. The importance of trade between Israel and Turkey can be seen in the Turkish government’s refusal last week to consider an opposition proposal in parliament to cut off all political, economic, and military ties with Israel. Trade between the two countries reached $4.9 billion in 2017 and Israel was Turkey’s 10th largest export market.

As the lira continues to break records in its slide against the dollar and Erdoğan spooks international investors by commenting on his intention to take greater control of monetary policy from Turkey’s central bank, breaking off relations with Israel and taking the resulting economic hit is something that Turkey can ill afford.

As pressure grew on the government to put its money where its mouth is, Erdoğan on Sunday announced his intention to ban Israeli goods produced in the West Bank, but has resisted going any further. While the Turkish president clearly wants to keep this at the level of a war of words, he is relying on Israel not to escalate matters by taking tangible action to downgrade its relations with Turkey at a time when the Turkish economy can least absorb the potential blowback.

Finally, in making such a big deal about the U.S. embassy move and recalling Ambassador Serdar Kılıç from Washington, Erdoğan is poking a U.S. government that is already at peak levels of frustration with Ankara and that is now led by a president who personalises everything and is notoriously sensitive to slights.

Between Turkish targeting of U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces and its threats to push toward U.S. positions in the Syrian district of Manbij, the continued imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson, Ankara’s effective shunning of its NATO allies with its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, and general anti-American invective pervading all corners of the Turkish government, Turkey’s standing in Washington is lower than at any point since its refusal to allow U.S. forces to operate from Turkey during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Congress is seriously contemplating sanctions against Turkey, and relying on the whims of President Donald Trump and his past kind words for Erdoğan as a safety net is foolish at best. By pulling the United States into its campaign against Israel, Erdoğan is leveraging every tool at his disposal to guarantee an electoral victory, but he is seeking a short-term gain at the possible expense of absorbing the most costly type of long-term loss.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.