Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday.(-/AFP/Getty Images)
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Erdogan, Moderate Islamist, Consolidates Power

What it could mean for Israel

Marc Tracy
August 02, 2011
Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday.(-/AFP/Getty Images)

If you sold one thousand words for that picture, you’d be getting a bargain. Over the weekend, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan—pictured yesterday, the sole suit, striding in front of all his military men—solidified his power when, in response to government-led investigations into military commanders attempting to sabotage him, several top members of the military brass resigned. Cut to Monday, when Erdogan sat alone at the head of a table during a meeting to decide military appointments, clearly the man in charge.

To grasp why this is so remarkable—since certainly the notion of civilian authority over the military is de rigeur in, say, the United States—you have to know about Turkey and about Erdogan, and Christopher Hitchens does a nice job with the particulars. The modern state of Turkey was founded in 1923 by the resolutely secular and thoroughly military Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, and for the next 80 years existed with a military at least as powerful as the civilian authorities (sometimes more powerful, as when one prime minister was hanged) and with a French-like commitment to laïcité in public life. That started to change last decade, when Erdogan’s AKP—ideologically Islamist, but moderately so—came to power, the first of three straight national elections they won. Erdogan “now enjoys more power than any Turkish leader since Kemal Atatürk,” Stephen Kinzer wrote two weeks ago. “Politically Turkey has changed more in the last ten years than it did in the previous eighty. For generations the army was able to enforce strict secularism in the tradition of Atatürk, but a new ethos, more open to religious influence, has changed the terms of politics and public life.” So in Turkey, the military correlates to secularism, while Islamists correlate to democracy. Pakistan it ain’t.

Israel currently has two major concerns with Turkey: its own bilateral relations, which dipped severely last year, and their mutual neighbor, Syria. On the latter front, the Assad regime’s instability has clearly brought the two countries closer. And the two sides seem to be circling around some sort of U.S.-backed rapprochement wherein Israel apologizes but does not take responsibility for last year’s raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara.

Israeli officials are concerned about Erdogan’s consolidation. I’m not sure I agree? If the lesson of the Arab Spring is that in the long run cooperative authoritarian rulers are poor guarantors of stability, then the much more modified Turkish Spring offers a much lower-stakes exchange: While in Egypt there is fear that genuinely scary Islamist elements could take over in the military’s wake, here the popular Islamists are avowed moderates who on the international stage are rational actors who can be made to see where their interests align with Israel’s. The Turkish model is probably the best to hope for Egypt to emulate. (Sure beats the Pakistani one.) I mean, an ostensibly secular republic that is nonetheless also the result of an early-20th-century nationalist movement, with a democratically elected government that includes overtly religious elements? Turkey and Israel should probably be friends. Meanwhile, hopefully Erdogan will remember what great powers come with.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.