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Turkey Uses Israel As Springboard to Power

Can anything bring the two nations to détente?

Marc Tracy
September 27, 2011
(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Controversial The Israel Lobby co-author John Mearsheimer has come under justified fire for blurbing a book by Gilad Atzmon, a guy who, among other things, has accused the Jews of unduly exploiting the Holocaust. “The Israeli people are only resorting back to the issue of genocide in history,” he has written. “And using that genocide, they are always acting as if they are the victims all the time.”

Oh, that wasn’t Atzmon, who is decidedly small potatoes (although he has written some very objectionable things). That was Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan on CNN this weekend. It’s the basis for the latest tiff between his country and Israel, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has angrily accused Erdogan of incitement. That’s the pattern: Erdogan provokes, to play to his base; Bibi bites, to play to his base; and all of a sudden, it’s another brouhaha between what were, not too long ago, two steadfast allies. If anything, the next to-do has already begun: yesterday, a Turkish paper, citing military sources, published names of Israeli soldiers and officials allegedly involved in the 2010 boarding of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara. Erdogan also called for sanctions on Israel.

The Times’s Anthony Shadid explains Erdogan’s situation. He is the non-Arab hero of the Arab Spring, the real McCoy: a genuinely Islamist and genuinely democratic leader of a large, successful, and respected country, unafraid to play with the big boys and unembarrassed by more local causes—chiefly, that of the Palestinians. His Kissinger-esque foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has yet broader plans for regional cooperation. On a recent trip to Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, Erdogan “brought his populism to the Arab world, where he displayed an intuitive sense of the resonance that the Palestinian issue still commands,” Shadid reports. “In speeches, he catered to the West and his domestic critics by embracing a secular state, even as he prayed in suit and tie in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.”

There are so many “material,” for lack of a better word, reasons why Turkey and Israel should be friends. Their interests align in worrying about Syria’s future; in securing energy supplies; in countering Iran; in letting their two robust economies trade with each other. But if the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it is that all leaders—and especially democratic ones, like Erdogan and Netanyahu—are beholden to their people. And each one’s people are demanding ideological brinksmanship. The big-minded politician who figures out how to make his or her constituents see where their true interests lie will merit the thanks of both sides.

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