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Erdoğan’s anti-Israel rhetoric is less about principles than his own political calculus



Ismail Küpeli,

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and German chancellor Olaf Scholz at a press conference in Berlin, 17 November 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Bernd Elmenthaler

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most recent state visit to Germany brought profound disagreements to the surface. While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz professed solidarity with Israel in the wake of the 7 October attack by Hamas, Erdoğan once again sided with the Islamist terror organization, which he had already previously described as “freedom fighters”. He referred to Israel as a “terrorist state” and questioned its right to exist, denouncing Western states as “crusaders”.

Ismail Küpeli is a political scientist at the University of Cologne and comments on political and social developments in Turkey and Germany.

Erdoğan can take these liberties because he knows that the West will continue relying on Turkey’s support for its foreign policy, security policy, and management of migration. The German government obviously still considers there to be “no alternative” to its policy towards Turkey.

The Roots of Turkish Antisemitism

Deciphering the reasons for the Turkish government’s anti-Israel rhetoric requires a historical understanding of the enemy stereotypes projected by Turkish nationalist ideology, and how these were instrumentalized for domestic politics.

The influence of these hostile constructions, originally directed against Armenians and then somewhat later against Jews, remains potent across Turkey’s right-wing political spectrum. This is also due to the fact that the so-called “Turkish–Islamic synthesis” of the 1970s achieved an ideological splicing of “the Turkish” and “the Islamic”, thus creating a religious-nationalist identity on which the various forces of the Turkish Right could draw in common. Turkish–Islamic ideology was and remains strongly characterized by anti-Semitic elements, and claims that the sole salvation for Islam and for Turkishness lies in a militant Islamism. This Islamist ideology goes hand in hand with militant Turkish nationalism.

The propagation of a distinct Turkish-Islamic identity, the identitarian rejection of the West, and a fundamentally anti-Semitic stance — nowadays usually expressed as Islamist anti-Zionism or “criticism of Israel” — are the most prominent elements of this ideology. Erdoğan and other players from the spectrums of Islamic conservativism and Islamism have been moulded by these narratives, which determine their political approach.

Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy depends on Erdoğan’s recent stabilization of his authoritarian rule, in spite of numerous crises.

This antisemitism always functions as part of an Islamist and nationalist ideology. In this sense, neither the Turkish government’s inveighing against Israel during the wave of protests in 2021, nor its current statements in the context of Israel’s military offensive after the Hamas attack on 7 October come as a surprise. Rather, they are in keeping with the traditional ideological line that guides the actions of Erdoğan and his associates. This ideological motivation is further strengthened by the fact that the governing alliance can score domestic political points with anti-Israel rhetoric. Likewise, the mainstream opposition cannot and will not develop an alternative position on the issue.

In recent years, nationalist mobilization has been accompanied by myriad foreign policy and military measures, with the image of the enemy derived from Turkish nationalist ideology. The foreign policy escalation in turn facilitates domestic political mobilization; this enables the governing alliance to determine the pace and direction of the political development — and force the mainstream opposition to go along with it.

Turkish Offensives in Rojava

The persistent military assaults against Kurdish forces in Turkey, in Rojava (North and East Syria), and in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2015 should also be seen in this context. The Turkish government’s specific reasons and justifications are not very convincing — such as when Syrian-Kurdish forces are blamed wholesale for terror attacks in Turkey of unclear origin, which are then used as justifications for bombing and ground offensives.

The most recent instance of this was the 1 October attack in Ankara, the Turkish capital, which injured two police officers. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) took responsibility for the attack. The Turkish government is now claiming that the perpetrators were trained in Rojava — thus making Syrian Kurdish forces responsible. This furnished a justification for Turkey’s subsequent aerial bombardment of Rojava, which continues to this day, killing large numbers of people and largely destroying the region’s civilian infrastructure. The targets of the Turkish airstrikes have so far included hospitals, electrical and gas power stations, and facilities that supply drinking water.

However, the Turkish government had already carried out numerous military strikes on Rojava prior to the 1 October attack. Turkey’s first war of aggression took place from August 2016 to March 2017. Although it was announced as a measure against the jihadist “Islamic State”, in fact Turkey’s military efforts were directed in the main against Syrian Kurdish forces.

This was followed by the war of aggression against Afrin/Rojava in January 2018, which claimed hundreds of civilian lives. Since March 2018, Afrin has been occupied by Turkish troops and those of Islamist allies, who have been responsible for numerous war crimes and human rights abuses.

Turkey’s third major offensive war began in October 2019 and was directed against those areas of Rojava that had not yet been occupied by Turkish troops. Due to Turkey’s superior military strength, the Kurdish militias had to relinquish further territory. But Turkey continued pursuing military objectives against Rojava even after the end of the third offensive war. There were 130 Turkish drone attacks in 2022 alone, killing 87 people and injuring 151.

Domestically Stabilizing the Erdoğan Regime

Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy depends on Erdoğan’s recent stabilization of his authoritarian rule, in spite of numerous crises. His “criticism of Israel” and the war against Rojava have certainly also contributed to this, as has the weakness of the opposition in the wake of its electoral defeat last May.

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) successfully deploy extreme right, racist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, which they continue to inflame with foreign policy escalation. The strategy of electioneering on the back of Turkish nationalism and associated anti-Kurdish racism has already proven to be a successful recipe for Erdoğan on previous occasions. When the AKP lost significant numbers of votes under his leadership in the June 2015 elections, losing its parliamentary majority, Erdoğan reacted by reigniting the war in the Kurdish regions. Accompanied by a nationalist and anti-Kurdish mobilization, the AKP then retook the majority in a new round of elections held in November 2015, gaining 49.5 percent of votes cast. Moreover, this mobilization led to a rapprochement between the AKP and the extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), enabling the introduction of the autocratic presidential system two years later.

It remains to be seen how Western governments will react to Ankara’s intensifying anti-Israel rhetoric.

Turkey’s mainstream opposition consisting of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the far-right “Good Party” (IYI), and additional small right-wing parties, all of which joined forces in 2018 to form the Alliance of the Nation electoral bloc, was neither willing nor able to counter this nationalist mobilization. The government’s political decisions at the expense of the Kurds were met with as little opposition from this bloc as they were from the broader public, where the mood is strongly anti-Kurdish. Attempts by the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to erect a united opposition front against the governing alliance were bluntly rejected by the mainstream opposition. This comes as no surprise given the anti-Kurdish İyi Parti’s major influence on the opposition bloc.

This rift between the mainstream and the left of the opposition not only facilitated Erdoğan’s re-election but also substantially weakened the resistance to the authoritarian regime. In any case, developments in recent months have proven that the governing alliance can continue to bank on mobilization around Turkish nationalism, and discursively marginalize the mainstream opposition — which is ultimately neither willing nor able to oppose the reigning ideology.

Back in the Saddle

Given the experiences of recent years, it can be assumed that the governing alliance in Ankara will continue to rely on Turkish nationalist mobilization and thus regularly resort to anti-Kurdish and anti-Semitic rhetoric. The fact that Turkey is also suffering the effects of various social and economic crises has so far not led to the autocratic government losing hegemony, because the mainstream opposition has not developed any independent or credible alternative to the government’s approach.

The left-wing opposition — having been forced to reorient itself after losing ground in the last elections, and currently going through an organizational transformation from the HDP to the newly founded Peoples’ Emancipation and Democracy Party (HEDEP) — is politically marginalized, apart from its support in the Kurdish region, and has no options in terms of allies for its progressive, non-nationalist policies. The result is that the Turkish governing alliance is once more firmly in the saddle.

It remains to be seen how Western governments will react to Ankara’s intensifying anti-Israel rhetoric. It is unlikely that the West will tolerate and ignore the kinds of positions Erdoğan has been proclaiming, including during his Berlin state visit — in contrast to the blind eye it turns to Turkey’s military assaults on Rojava. Open conflict between the Turkish and Israeli governments could lead to foreign policy reactions from the West, but only if Western states abandon the widely held belief that they depend on Turkey for their own security and migration policy.

Translated by Sam Langer and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.