Domestic political factors in Turkey may exert considerable influence in the coming weeks over Ankara’s response to the tragically botched Israeli commando raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, analysts say.
With a general election coming up in about a year’s time, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is intent on maintaining its political position in Turkey. In recent months, the governing party has had to contend with a possibly resurgent Islamist right and a re-tooled secularist opposition. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. The competition could cause the AKP to adopt a more populist line when it comes to post-raid Turkish-Israeli relations, some political analysts say. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“This is now going to be part and parcel in the internal tug of war between the AKP and the other political parties in Turkey. In this case, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is not going to defuse the tension,” says Gencer Ozcan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Erdogan’s provocative style was again on display June 6, when he went after Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the Republican People’s Party, the main secularist opposition party, for his approach to the flotilla incident. “Some people speak in the name of Tel Aviv, advocate for Tel Aviv,” Erdogan said. “They question our way of diplomacy.”
The flotilla affair, along with the now extremely politically hot Israel/Palestine issue, may also force the government to protect itself against Turkey’s resurgent Islamist right, which has earned new political capital through the work of the IHH, the Islamist Turkish non-governmental organization that led the flotilla and which manned the Mavi Marmara, the decommissioned cruise ship where the deadly confrontation between the Israeli commandos and passengers occurred. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“When the IHH, the much-debated Islamist aid organization, showed serious signs that it would carry out its intentions to approach Gaza through Israel’s naval borders, and as soon as it became clear that the IHH would not listen to advice from Ankara not to do it the way it did, the issue before the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) became two-fold (and it still is). First, how to utilize an inevitable clash with Israeli forces into further popularity. Second, how to get possible mass-hysteria under control,” Yavuz Baydar, a political analyst and columnist for the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, recently wrote.
“The crucial element in this context has to do with which political actor in Turkey the IHH identifies itself most closely with. A mixture of various deeply conservative Sunni elements (in terms of sects), the IHH is a social flank of the Felicity Party (SP). It is the child of the famous ‘Milli Gorus’ (National View), founded and still controlled by Necmettin Erbakan, a former prime minister known for his anti-Western, anti-Semitic views.”
“The AKP has enjoyed some support from that segment over the years, and is keen on not losing it fully to a non-globalist Islamist movement such as the SP, which is at least sympathetic to radical views,” Baydar added. “This also means not losing other segments who justifiably were infuriated over the incident.”
Beyond electioneering, increased tension with Israel could also help the AKP make gains in its ongoing effort to reduce the Turkish military’s influence over the state, some analysts have also suggested. As Israeli researcher and Turkey expert Anat Lapidot-Firilla recently put it in a column in the Jerusalem Post, the AKP could use the flotilla incident to its domestic advantage by “emphasizing the support of the defense establishment and the Kemalist bureaucracy to immoral Israel and the lack of interest in the fate of their Muslim brethren in Palestine.”
There have also been suggestions that any attempt to use the flotilla for domestic political gain could prove problematic for the AKP, as it might force the governing party to stake out a position that could ultimately leave it owning the issue domestically and regionally. At the same time, Turkey could find itself at odds with Washington and other traditional allies, who would like to quickly repair the damage caused by the event.
“Put in a nutshell, the sympathy that Turkey initially garnered as a result of the lethal way that Israel conducted this operation is set to evaporate in the West, if the AKP government does not begin to chart a more balanced course on Iran and Hamas, a course which is more in keeping with the country’s international commitments as a NATO ally,” Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet, wrote in a column.
“It’s all very well for Turkish officials to shower Israel … with negative adjectives, no doubt most of them deserved in this case,” Idiz added. “But Turkey has to tread cautiously in such matters because of a host of reasons to do with its own long-term interests.”
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Kebabistan blog.