As Erdogan feinted toward Europe, he pursued Arab states with vigor, often at the expense of both the United States and Israel. In July 2004, for example, Erdogan snubbed the Jewish state, saying he was too busy to meet Israel’s visiting deputy prime minister, but he nevertheless found time the same day to see Syria’s prime minister. The following year, Erdogan invited Syria’s president to vacation with him in Turkey, a dramatic reversal in relations considering that, less than a decade before, Turkey and Syria had been on the verge of war over Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism.
Likewise, in February 2006, Erdogan stunned American officials when, less than a month after Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections, and less than a week after he had told European officials that he would honor the international community’s decision to isolate Hamas until it renounced terrorism and recognized the Jewish state’s right to exist, Turkey received a Hamas delegation in Ankara. Turkish authorities defended their actions by arguing that they wanted good relations with all regional countries and that their ties with all parties enabled Turkey to broker peace, but the reality was the opposite: Every time Erdogan was forced to choose among Arab regimes, he invariably embraced the extreme at the expense of the moderate.
His outreach to Syria’s notorious dictator Bashar al-Assad, for example, came against the backdrop of the 2005 Cedar Revolution against Syrian-imposed rule in Lebanon. As the Western world rallied around the Lebanese people, Turkey was one of only two countries — the other being the Islamic Republic of Iran — that supported Syria. Likewise, when given a choice between the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and that of Abbas’s rejectionist (anti-peace-process) opponents in Hamas, Erdogan not only sided with the latter but provided diplomatic legitimacy to Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s most unrepentant terrorist. In 2007, emergency personnel responding to a train derailment in Turkey found it to be carrying arms apparently destined for Hezbollah, the Syrian/Iranian-backed terrorist militia in Lebanon.
Erdogan’s support for extremists proved to be the rule rather than the exception. In this context, much of the press analysis surrounding Erdogan’s behavior at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos appears naïve. During a panel discussion with Israeli president Shimon Peres in which Peres defended Israel’s military response to Hamas, Erdogan shouted, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” and stormed off the stage vowing never to return. The New York Times explained that “Mr. Erdogan apparently became incensed after the moderator curtailed his response to remarks by Mr. Peres on the recent Israeli military campaign. The panel was running late, and Mr. Peres was to have had the last word.”
Turks, however, knew better. Engineers working on Istanbul’s metro system were told a day before the incident that the subway should not close at midnight as usual, but rather should remain open until 4:00 a.m., on the evening of the Davos blow-up. Other AKP activists received notices telling them to prepare for a dead-of-night rally. As Erdogan “spontaneously” curtailed his trip and flew home, 3,000 Palestinian-flag-waving supporters greeted his plane at 3:00 a.m. Pre-printed signs hailed Erdogan as a new world leader. Neither Erdogan’s attack on Peres nor the rally was spontaneous. Even in a city as vibrant as Istanbul, it is hard to purchase Palestinian flags by the thousand after the close of business.
Today, Erdogan tries to leverage Turkey’s position to create an impression that it is the chief power in the Middle East. Like his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has tried to hijack the Arab Spring quest for democracy to his own ends. In September, Erdogan embarked on a tour to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, pledging support for their new governments and lobbying them to adopt the Turkish model. While Erdogan now speaks out against Assad and Qaddafi, Arabs know that Erdogan was for the region’s worst dictators before he was against them. As recently as November 2010, Erdogan even traveled to Tripoli to collect the Moammar Qaddafi human-rights prize — and its $250,000 purse — from the mercurial and murderous dictator. He used his acceptance speech to pledge his dedication to the “truth” and promised to spare no effort in holding Israel to account.
Diplomats may concede that Turkey has become pro-Arab in its foreign policy, but this is only half the story. The rest is that Erdogan seeks not only to be pro-Arab, but also to head the region’s rejectionist front.