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What's Happened to Turkey and Why We Should Worry​

February 5, 2009 By:
David A. Harris
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I have long admired Turkey. Yet with the outburst of animosity for Israel displayed most prominently by its prime minister in Davos, Switzerland, over the weekend, coupled with the anxiety awakened in the Turkish Jewish community, I wonder what's going on and what the future holds.

If this only emanated from the "street" or from an extremist fringe, it would be worrisome enough. But it starts at the top. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the loudest, attacking Israel in a manner both vicious and disconnected from facts.

He has described Israeli policy in Gaza as a "massacre" -- as a "crime against humanity" that would bring about Israel's "self-destruction" through divine punishment.

These words are inflammatory, unfair and simply wrong.

Israel yearns for a secure and lasting peace. No one has more fully embodied that vision or worked more tirelessly to achieve a new start for the Middle East than Shimon Peres, Israel's president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Erdogan's fellow panelist at Davos.

Yet Erdogan essentially called Peres a child-killer before storming off the stage at the World Economic Forum. Maybe he gained popularity in the Turkish street, where anger against Israel and Jews has been stoked in recent weeks, but Erdogan's unstatesmanlike behavior did Turkey no service.

What would Turkey do if its population were targeted, day after day, by merciless enemies? Actually, we know the answer. When Turkey has deemed its national interests in jeopardy, it has acted, irrespective of the global community.

Fearing a union between Greece and Cyprus, Turkey rushed troops to the northern part of the island in 1974, where much of the Turkish community lived. A new breakaway government was declared. The U.N. Security Council deplored the move. Only Turkey recognized the new state. Then came a deliberate policy of settlement from Turkey to create facts on the ground.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has targeted Turkey for years, initially seeking an independent Kurdish state that included part of Turkey. Now it claims to seek greater autonomy for millions of Kurds in Turkey. As the PKK has lowered its demands, has Turkey pursued talks with that murderous group?

Absolutely not! And it has urged other nations to avoid any contact as well.

In the late 1990s, Ankara threatened to send its army into neighboring Syria if the PKK continued to receive protection there. Luckily for Turkey, Syria was smarter than Hamas. Damascus got the message loud and clear.

Since 1993, Turkey has sealed its border with landlocked Armenia because it objects to Armenian policy toward Azerbaijan. Erdogan now accuses Israel of creating "an open-air prison" by sealing its own frontier with a hostile territory, even while humanitarian assistance continues to cross from Israel to Gaza.

Erdogan contends that Hamas is a reasonable negotiating partner. He invited its leaders to Ankara, though Hamas had not met the international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements. It still has not and repeatedly declares its goal of Israel's destruction, assisted by weapons from Iran.

It's so easy to tell another country what it should or shouldn't do in the face of threats, especially when one's own country is 10 times more populous and 38 times larger in size. But ultimately, Israel, like its friend Turkey, must make tough choices to protect its citizens.

The Turkey I know would recoil from partners like Iran and Hamas. Their central beliefs are antithetical to everything that modern, democratic Turkey ought to stand for.

I have long valued Turkey's increasingly important role in regional and global affairs. Its growing link to Europe, its longstanding NATO membership, its strong ties with the United States, its historic place as a haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, its contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations, including in southern Lebanon, and its mutually beneficial ties with Israel have all served it well.

In that spirit, I have acted on the assumption that friends help friends. When Ankara needed assistance in Washington or in European capitals, Turkish officials often turned to Jewish groups -- AJC among them -- and whenever we could, we have helped. When a major earthquake devastated Adapazari in 1999, AJC built a school for 400 children as a gesture of solidarity and friendship.

Only Prime Minister Erdogan knows how far he wants to take his increasingly belligerent posture. It certainly has resulted in joy in Iran and Hamas' radical circles. Iranian leaders now talk of him as a Nobel Peace Prize candidate.

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.


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