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Davos: the stage, the street and diplomacy

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan attracted a lot of attention worldwide last week for storming out of a Gaza panel at Davos. A large crowd met him in Istanbul, there were demonstrations in Gaza and people called Erdoğan a hero and a world leader.

Yet we must take a closer look at the Davos incident. What does it mean for Turkey domestically, for Turkey’s role in the Middle East, for relations with Arab countries, Israel, the United States and Europe, and lastly, for links between politics and diplomacy?

What was important about Davos was not that Erdoğan left the panel, but rather what he said about Israel. It is true that the moderator’s conduct of the panel was a disaster. It is also true that the demeanor of President Peres was uncalled for and provocative. It was clear therefore that Erdoğan had a right to reply that the moderator did not allow him to exercise fully.

However, none of this changes the fact that Erdoğan had decided to have a showdown with Peres before he arrived in Davos. None of this alters the fact that the Davos performance was not an isolated event, but the latest link in the chain of Erdoğan’s foreign policy preferences, reflecting his world outlook based on his faith.

Some time before he left for Switzerland, he declared to his party’s parliamentary group that in Davos he would drill Peres with tough questions on Gaza. The Turkish media has just reported that the Gaza panel was a later addition to the Davos program at the request of the Turkish delegation. Erdoğan’s eruption therefore was not an impulsive reaction. It was part of a prior decision to be the voice of Hamas and Gaza and to take an uncompromising stand against Israel. The circumstances, particularly the moderator’s mismanagement, paved the way for Erdoğan’s actions. However, even if he had stayed on, the outcome would not have been much different because not his actions, but his words made the difference. His public display of anger and defiance enhanced only the stage effect of his words.

Domestically, Erdoğan’s popularity probably received a significant boost, but how and if this will affect the upcoming local elections remains to be seen. The more important consequence for Turkey is likely to follow in making Erdoğan even more adamant in the righteousness and wisdom of his views. There will be many in and outside Turkey to portray Erdoğan as the "leader of the Islamic world." What this means for Turkey, especially if the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, emerges victorious in local elections, is a crucial question mark for near future of Turkish politics.

One other equally significant domestic fallout could be greater anti-Israeli feelings and stronger perceptions into anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israeli policies toward Arab states and Palestinians has been a familiar feature in Turkish politics but its substance and tone have grown more virulent, more one-sided and increasingly more embedded in a religious garb. It is as if the Middle East conflict is not between Arabs and Israelis, but one between Muslims and Jews.

The problem is that the line between being against Israel and being anti-Semitic is very thin and readily bridgeable in a country like Turkey where emotions and psychology always ride high. Let us criticize Israel, but let us not turn it into a religious or racial issue.

The ramifications of Davos for Turkey’s foreign relations are just as important as its domestic implications. Erdoğan is certainly a hero in Gaza and Iran has warmly praised him along with others in the Arab world. Being popular in the streets of Arab and other Muslim countries is important, especially for a leader of Turkey, a country viewed with a mixture of envy and suspicion because of its secular democracy. Nevertheless, it is an asset that can by enjoyed, but not spent. The call to Erdoğan to turn his immense street support toward influencing Hamas to adopt a moderate stance is unrealistic and unwarranted. Hamas will not change its policies on Turkey’s request.

The Davos event probably intensified the various polarities in the region. It will be more difficult to bring Palestinian factions together now that Hamas feels it has the backing of Turkey in addition to Iran. Without Palestinian unity, an Israel-Palestine agreement is impossible. The gap between Hamas and Israel widened after the recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza and Erdoğan is not helping to reduce it. Moreover, from now on Israel may be less willing for Turkey to have a frontline role in the Middle East peace process.

The clearest fallout of Davos, however, is the further erosion of the relationship between the U.S. Jewish lobby and Erdoğan. Only a few years ago, the Jewish lobby was bestowing high honors on him. Today, the top five leading Jewish organizations have addressed a letter to him about their concerns for his criticism of Israel, the insecurity of the Jewish community and the suggested rise of anti-Semitism in Turkey. The strain is real and serious. The Jewish lobby is by far the most powerful and is the only one that supports Turkey. The Jewish lobby only has to do nothing to hurt Turkish interests. Without Jewish support of Turkey, Armenian resolutions would enjoy their best chance ever to pass U.S. Congress.

Israel will draw its own conclusions from Davos. It is clear the relationship is not what it was several years ago, but it is still too important for Israel to risk further deterioration. Ties with Israel are valuable for Turkey as well. What will happen next depends on what leaders on both sides do and say. Erdoğan is likely to maintain his pro-Hamas narrative while Israel will continue to refuse to deal with Hamas. This might place additional strains on Turkish-Israeli ties.

Any bumps in the Turkish-Israeli relationship will affect Turkey’s ties with the United States. President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell canceled his visit to Turkey after the Davos episode. If the Armenian resolutions pass through congress, the Turkish public will blame Israel and the U.S. Jewish lobby. Their passage will cause extensive damage to Turkish-American relations, which in turn could lead to new tensions between Turkey and Israel. Turkey’s potential to play a substantial role in the Middle East will have been significantly reduced. Arab leaders are unlikely to leave the stage to Turkey and President Mahmud Abbas and Fatah likely to be more reticent to Turkish mediation efforts. If true, then the importance to the United States of the Turkish-American partnership could be undermined as well.

The Davos affair is not going to help Turkey’s relations with Europe either. Erdoğan is well-known in the European Union and has been applauded for Turkey’s activism in the Middle East. His Davos eruption, however, even if justified, was met with dismay. In Western eyes, Erdoğan did not act like a prime minister of a country in the Euro-Atlantic community. The image was that Turkey is a country of its region, that it belongs there and that it acts so. The Davos fallout dovetails with the perceived slowdown in Turkey’s reforms and will not augur well for the accession process.

The immediate cost of the Davos affair, however, is evident and real. There were at least two notable losses. One was the opportunity not seized by Erdoğan to exercise leadership and diplomacy on that unique platform at Davos. Were he to offer Turkey’s own ideas resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict as he criticized Israel, it would have served everybody’s interests well. He could have emerged as a world leader admired for his positive courage and wisdom. Erdoğan chose the opposite path.

The second loss incurred in connection with a meeting between Erdoğan and the Armenian president. It took place under the shadow of the Gaza panel incident and apparently did not bear the fruit it could have under normal conditions. Turkey’s hand in trying to prevent Armenian resolutions in the U.S. Congress may therefore be weaker in the months ahead.

Finally, a word about the relationship between politics and diplomacy. Erdoğan, in trying to justify his behavior at Davos, said he is a politician and does not care for the niceties of diplomacy. He implies he has no use for diplomats. However, diplomacy predates politics. Diplomacy resolves conflicts. Conflicts are resolved at the table, not in the streets or by politicians. Did Erdoğan not engage in diplomacy by holding a press conference immediately afterward?

We are a blessed nation because we have outstanding diplomats who are dedicated to their country and are exceptionally skillful in defending our national interests. In the aftermath of Davos, Turkey might be facing some new problems. I therefore suspect Turkish diplomats will again be very busy in picking up the pieces and doing extra time in the months ahead!
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