President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is threatening Israel in order to galvanize his base and strengthen his populist-Muslim appeal.
In the last few days, Erdogan has railed against the U.S. decision, last week, to move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President Trump’s announcement breached a “red line,” Erdogan says. According to Erdogan, Trump’s decision also renders Israel a confirmed “terrorist state” and makes the American leader a “partner in bloodshed.”
It all sounds very apocalyptic.
Still, Erdogan’s threats aren’t really designed to harm the Jewish state, but rather to cultivate the crowd. Erdogan sees the protests and anger that we’re seeing on streets across the Muslim world, and he wants to mobilize that anger in his favor. He wants the crowd to view him as the only Muslim leader capable of taking a stand and giving a political voice to common frustrations.
In part, this is an effort for Erdogan to consolidate the religious-populists in his AK party. Those voters revel in Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian approach to fostering political Islam in Turkish society. With elections due in November 2019, they offer Erdogan the means toward another term in office.
But Erdogan’s antics are also about building regional influence.
Having given up on overthrowing Syrian President Bashar Assad in order to win Russian favor, Erdogan knows his populist-Muslim influence is vulnerable with Sunni Muslims. Those Muslims, after all, have suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths at the hands of an Assad war machine that Erdogan promised to bring down. Now he’s licking its boots.
In turn, attacking Israel over Jerusalem gives Erdogan a cheap and guaranteed way to stir up the masses in the veil of a Muslim patriot. It’s a cynical ploy but one that cannot be discounted.
Nevertheless, even Erdogan will recognize it’s not in his interests to push Israel too far. Aside from increasing trade ties between Israeli and Turkish officials, Turkey has few means to challenge Israel. The new Middle East is one in which Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni monarchies are increasingly close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.