Why Turkey's Erdogan settled for less than he wanted from Israel

The deal reflected pragmatism. But it also signals Erdogan's declining stature in the Middle East and mounting troubles at home, where he has exploited cultural divisions to deflect attention.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, shown here giving a speech during an iftar event in Ankara, had to settle for less than he wanted in diplomatic rows with both Israel and Russia.

Turkey is trumpeting a dual diplomatic victory: a deal with Israel, which ends a six-year standoff between the former allies, and a fresh bid to mend shattered ties with Russia.

But the pragmatic breakthroughs, which could ease Turkey’s isolation, may also signify the declining regional stature of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who did not get what he wanted in either case. He reversed long-held positions of demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and of refusing to apologize for Turkey shooting down a Russian jet fighter last November.

Mr. Erdoğan's foreign policy challenges, as well as also rising Islamic State attacks, plummeting tourism, and war with Kurdish militants in the southeast, may be driving other moves as well, analysts say: stoking cultural divisions in Turkey to deflect attention from local problems and his waning status abroad.

That contrasts strikingly with his image as a rising star of the Middle East five years ago, when new Islamist leaders looked to him – and to Turkey – as a role model after the Arab Spring dislodged a series of dictators.

“People now perceive Erdoğan as a much more authoritarian leader who brooks no opposition, and therefore has assumed some of the attributes of leaders that were overthrown,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Turkey’s reputation in the Arab world surged in 2009 when it took the Palestinian side in Gaza against Israel. Then in 2011, as authoritarian regimes fell, Erdoğan was seen as a hero in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and in Tripoli, where Turkey was cast as a successful model of modern, Islamist rule.

“If [Erdoğan] was at 100 percent of popularity and power at the beginning of the Arab Spring, he was cut down to 20 percent, and now he’s going to go up to 40 percent,” says Mr. Barkey, noting how Turkish officials are highlighting their role in helping ease the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. “But he’s not coming up to what he used to be, and partly that’s due to what is happening domestically.”

Landmark deal – but...

On Tuesday Turkey and Israel signed a landmark agreement restoring full diplomatic relations after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli forces killed 10 Turkish citizens when they stormed a ship trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

The deal reflects "the extent of isolation and desperation of Turkey in foreign policy; and Erdoğan’s survival instinct, which can lead him to utmost flexibility and pragmatism,” wrote Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar for the online news site Al Monitor.

It includes $20 million in Israeli compensation for the victims’ families and agreement to build a hospital and water and electricity projects in Gaza – with materials arriving through an Israeli port. The first 10,000 tons of Turkish aid is to arrive on Friday.

The deal could be an economic boon for both countries, giving Israel a new customer for its natural gas and enabling Turkey to lessen its reliance on Russian energy. The deal will also “rejuvenate [Turkey’s] good relations with the Jewish lobby in the United States and win new friends in the American Congress,” wrote Erdoğan adviser İlnur Çevik in the pro-government Daily Sabah.

Turkish official are essentially calling this a de facto easing of the embargo. But it stops far short of Turkey’s longstanding demand to lift the Gaza blockade and shows the distance traveled since 2014, when Erdoğan – then prime minister – said that a normalization of ties with Israel was “out of the question” and that Israel’s war in Gaza was “state terrorism.”

Just hours after the deal with Israel, the Kremlin reported that Erdoğan had written a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin saying “I’m sorry” for Turkey shooting down the Russian fighter jet last November.

Erdoğan and other top officials had vowed to never apologize, as Russia demanded. They claimed the Russian plane entered Turkish airspace from Syria in a “planned provocation.”

That climb-down was carefully timed to minimize its negative impact at home, say analysts, by announcing the Israel deal first.

Strategy to exploit Turkey's divisions

Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have consistently done well at the ballot box since 2002. But analysts say that part of their strategy is to exploit Turkey’s social, ethnic, and religious divisions, especially when their policies come under scrutiny, as they have again this past year.

A string of bombings since last year, many conducted by the self-declared Islamic State, have damaged Turkey’s economy, with tourism down almost 35 percent in the past year. The number of Russian visitors – who once populated whole Mediterranean resort towns – has plunged 92 percent since the plane incident.

Erdoğan’s Syria policy of turning a blind eye and facilitating jihadists among rebel forces, in a conflict that has brought more than 2 million refugees to Turkey, has come under fire for adding to instability.

“Tayyip Erdoğan’s solution, his political strategy, is whenever Turkey is starting to experience economic problems and people start asking questions about the current regime, then he very successfully hijacks [these] problems by bringing back this cultural clash in front of everybody,” says Behlül Özkan, an analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul.

Recent incidents include officials' shutting down of last week’s annual LGBT pride parade in Istanbul, and Islamist vigilantes’ attack on an Istanbul record store celebrating a new Radiohead album with alcohol, which is widely available in Turkey but brushed up against some religious sensitivities.

While Erdoğan called on both sides to exercise restraint and respect the Muslim month of Ramadan, he also announced that he would resume his campaign to turn Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a shopping mall – an explosive issue that touched off a month of violent anti-government clashes that spread across Turkey three years ago.

The protesters accused Erdoğan of dictatorial ways, and he in turn called the protesters “terrorists” and claimed they had defiled “our mosques” with alcohol and nudity – charges that were never substantiated. Some suggest he is setting the stage for another round.

“... Tayyip Erdoğan is igniting this clash,” says Mr. Özkan. “He is personally doing this, and doing it on purpose, to start this cultural clash in order to disguise the economic problems of Turkey. That is a very clear strategy.”

The strategy has been used before, he says, over the issue of headscarves in the republic, with its staunchly secular tradition, and about the spread of religious schools.

Adding the xenophobic factor

Another factor is the resumption a year ago of Turkey’s war against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), ending a two-year peace process with a renewed conflict that has now destroyed several urban centers in southeast Turkey and taken thousands of lives. 

Erdoğan is “deliberately provoking tensions at home, in part to take away from what’s going on with the Kurdish question,” says the Wilson Center’s Barkey. “He is polarizing things, but he is also paying a very high price: More than 500 soldiers died in a year. They’ve never suffered these kinds of casualties before; everyday you have stories of martyrdom. He has to play that carefully, because it can backfire.

“But his technique – like we saw after Gezi ... – is attack, attack, attack, never leave the initiative to the other side, and so far he has been successful,” says Barkey.

Added to that is a dose of xenophobia, says Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Looking at these divisions, then adding on the xenophobic factor – ‘The Americans don’t like us, the Russians don’t like us,’ take your pick; ‘the only friend a Turk has is a Turk’ situation – society is perhaps more polarized than ever before,” says Mr. Aliriza.

“Polarization pays dividends. The 'Us vs. Them' attitude obviously has worked well,” he says. “Clearly that helps the incumbent party in elections, and helps the president in setting the agenda. But you can only keep on doing this up to a certain point before things spin out of control.”

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott

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