Islamists are angry but have no one else to turn to
The reactions among conservative and Islamist grassroots supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reveal confusion and anger in this significant portion of society over the deal with Israel. Some are livid, while others are trying to rationalize this hateful turn of events for them with flurried arguments as to why Ankara had no other choice.
As expected, the Islamist Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH) has rejected the deal. The group had insisted on breaking the Gaza blockade in 2010 with the Mavi Marmara aid ship, resulting in the killing of 10 pro-Palestinian Turkish activists by Israeli commandoes, and bringing Turkish-Israeli ties to rock bottom.
The İHH statement on the rapprochement with Israel angered Erdoğan, who claimed rather fantastically that no one had asked for his authorization, as the prime minister at the time, before setting out on this Gaza mission. Erdoğan’s countless statements in the past in support of the Mavi Marmara belie this line of argumentation.
Many, myself included, believed then that burning bridges with Israel, regardless of how angry we may be over Israeli behavior toward Palestinians, would weaken Turkey’s hand in the region.
That is what happened, eventually leaving the government with no choice but to backpedal from its hard line on Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2013 apology for the Mavi Marmara raid, and his willingness to pay compensation, helped kick-start the reconciliation process.
These were two of Turkey’s conditions for improved ties. But what Islamists were eyeing was the third condition, namely the lifting of the Israeli embargo on Gaza. No matter what spin the government is putting on it, that has not happened.
Turkey secured the right to send aid and to build infrastructure in Gaza but all the material will go through the Israeli port of Ashdod. The İHH had refused this in 2010, insisting it would sail straight into Gaza. So we are where we were six years ago, as Ankara complies with Israeli rules on accessing Gaza.
Erdoğan’s advisers must have realized that despite their anger, Islamist quarters would eventually swallow the deal with Israel in order not to weaken Erdoğan and the AKP, their only political choice in today’s Turkey. This amounts to drinking poison for the sake of the cause.
Even the İHH apologized to Erdoğan for a remark in its statement on the Israeli deal, where it quoted a Palestinian saying to the effect that “those who cover themselves with Israel will find themselves naked.” The İHH said this had been quoted out of context and was never aimed at Erdoğan.
The bottom line is that support for Erdoğan remains strong among Turkey’s conservative masses and Islamists, despite their anger over the rapprochement with Israel. This, and the developing reconciliation with Russia, shows that he has the power to do what he wants regardless of the feelings of his grassroots supporters.
The question arises, however, as to why he failed to move in a realistic direction much earlier if this deal was all he could pull out of the hat in the end. The answer is not too complicated.
As a populist, Erdoğan must have worried about the reaction of his base supporters. Far more importantly, though, he himself did not want this rapprochement, which is totally at odds with his Islamist outlook.
This means that rather than pushing for Turkey’s overall interests, Erdoğan was more interested until recently in pursuing his own ideological agenda for the region. That approach resulted in total failure and forced him – against his will - to try and regain Turkey’s lost influence, instead of pursuing his party’s Islamist interests.
The hope is that this wakeup call in the domain of foreign policy will also lead to a waking up in the domain of domestic politics, where Erdoğan is clearly leading the country down a dead end.