michael koplow
Feb 26 2018

Erdoğan and Netanyahu mirror each other

After months of rumors of prime ministerial corruption and misdeeds, police arrest prominent executives at a government-affiliated corporation. Among those arrested are close associates of the prime minister and other cabinet members, and investigations are launched into the prime minister’s own relatives. The prime minister lashes out at the press and the police, saying they have been penetrated and are controlled by his political enemies, that the charges are groundless, and that this is an attempted “judicial coup” to replace him since his opponents have been unable to do so at the ballot box.

Some readers will recognise this as a description of the arrests of December 2013 and corruption charges against family members and cabinet ministers of then-prime minster, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan involving state-run Halkbank.

But others will recognise it as a description of events taking place right now in Israel involving police recommendations to indict Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in two corruption cases and arrests of his former aides and advisers, including some who have already turned state’s witness.

Indeed, the similarities between the Turkish and Israeli cases are too eerie to go unnoticed, from the personalities involved to the ways in which both Erdoğan and Netanyahu allowed their incredible political successes to lead them astray.

Erdoğan and Netanyahu are the most consequential and successful politicians in their respective countries since the founding fathers Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and David Ben Gurion.

Both have presided over a series of increasingly dominant electoral victories that demonstrate an opposition floundering to catch up or even be competitive.

Both have, in ways large and small, influenced their societies in a more conservative direction that has reshaped the electoral map and political loyalties.

Both have constructed a system that to an unprecedented degree revolves around themselves and their personalities rather than the party apparatus from whose ranks they rose.

This would be no small feat in any context, but it is particularly striking that Erdoğan and Netanyahu have done this within parliamentary systems, with Erdoğan going so far as to use his popularity and force of personality to turn Turkey’s parliamentary system into a highly centralised presidential one. Whatever one thinks of these two men, denying their accomplishments and impact is impossible.

But this success has a dark side to it as well, and the Turkish and Israeli leaders have relied on similar strategies that have led them astray.

Erdoğan has never hesitated from appealing to an ugly strain of hyper-nationalism in order to advance his political goals. This has come at the expense of Turkey’s Kurds, who have gone from being a minority subject to discrimination to a group tarred as criminals, with their elected political leaders jailed and charged with terrorism.

But it has also come at the expense of Turkey’s relationships with other countries, as Erdoğan frequently rails against shadowy foreign forces he alleges are trying to bring Turkey down, from the United States to the European Union to other erstwhile Western allies.

Netanyahu has never quite matched the deeds of his Turkish counterpart, and he has not come close to using the power of the state to jail domestic political opponents. But he infamously warned about Arab voters being bussed to the polls in droves on election day in 2015 in an effort to boost the right-wing turnout, and has portrayed a campaign against left-wing NGOs as one designed to eliminate the influence of foreign governments in Israeli affairs.

This is related to the corruption charges that plagued Erdoğan in 2013 and plague Netanyahu now because both arose out of an obsession with remaining in office at all costs and assuming that their political success meant the rules did not apply to them.

As the revelations that emerged during the New York trial of former Halkbank deputy manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla last year made clear, Erdoğan did not blink at enabling a massive scheme involving busting U.S.-led sanctions on Iran that not only enriched him and his family members, but served as a way to maintain his power by enriching key supporters and political allies as well.

Netanyahu is alleged to have made deals with media tycoons that gave them improper state benefits in return for news coverage favourable to him and his wife.

The common thread here is that both leaders, after years of remarkable political success, thought that they could subvert the rules designed to constrain their power without consequences, and that their popularity was such that they could then portray the police investigations into their actions as politically-motivated witch hunts.

The outcomes of these two cases are likely to diverge due to the different natures of the Turkish and Israeli political systems, but it is tough to escape the conclusion that the Erdoğan and Netanyahu who first came to power would not have been so audacious in their actions as the leaders who became so accustomed to their positions that they lost any sense of proportion.