Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once a promising Middle Eastern leader. He had good relations with the West and a constructive, strategic relationship with Israel. And then it all fell apart.
In the span of a few short years, Erdogan morphed into a despot who promoted a nationalist opposition to the West and a visceral hatred toward Israel. As Erdogan now moves from serving as his country’s prime minister to serving as its president, he has moved freely from a troubling hostility toward Israel to an alarming bigotry toward Jews. Thus, in the midst of his recent campaign, Erdogan said of Israel: “Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target.” And he predicted that “one day they will pay for their tyranny. We are waiting impatiently to see the day of justice; I believe wholeheartedly that justice will be served.”
The apparent trigger for Erdogan’s anti-Semitic rant was Israel’s actions in Gaza. He is a friend of fellow Islamist Hamas and a champion of the Palestinian cause. But he uses his explosive rhetoric and politics of hate to distract Turks from his corrupt and increasingly authoritarian rule.
Erdogan’s departure from the path of moderation has not gone unnoticed in the United States. House members who have led the cause of U.S.-Turkish relations recently sent Erdogan a letter warning that his politics of hate were jeopardizing those ties. “Remarks you have made recently have been widely viewed as anti-Semitic and are most definitely anti-Israel,” the letter states. But those warnings changed nothing.
Indeed, it is doubtful that Erdogan understood the message from his Congressional friends. Rather, he seems focused on deflecting blame for his own mistakes. Thus, in May, he reportedly kicked a demonstrator who was protesting the deaths of hundreds of Turks in a coal mine disaster. Erdogan called the demonstrator “you spawn of Israel.” And, at another campaign rally, he attacked the American Jewish Congress, which asked him to return a prize it had given him in 2004. Erdogan’s response? “The American Jewish Association [sic] threatens me in their letter,” he said. “I will reply to their letter separately, but I want to call on them from here: They are killing women to stop them for giving birth to Palestinian babies; they kill babies so that they won’t grow up; they kill men so they can’t defend their country.”
Such hostility and hatred leaves little room for diplomacy. As a result, we may be settling in for a long, cold winter in our relationship with Turkey. Because, as the letter from the House members observed, Erdogan’s words of hate are now threatening his relationship with the United States.