Erdogan’s Fury over the Arab-Israel Relationship

Note: This article by Dr. Alfonse Javed was originally published in Providence Magazine on  February 22, 2021.

Turkey is sending a strong message to Arab states against normalizing relations with Israel. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s new peace with Israel as a betrayal of Palestinians, who consider it to be a tragedy. Considering that Turkey has enjoyed diplomatic relations with Israel and trade since 1949, he is likely not upset because of solidarity with Palestinians, which Muslim and Arab leaders have long manipulated. Instead, the normalization between the Arabs and Israelis diminishes Turkey’s role as the chief mediator between Israel and the Muslim world, so Erdogan’s anguish probably comes from fear of an “Arab option.”

The United States, Europe, the Muslim world, and Israel now have an Arab option when dealing amongst themselves. Arabs, especially in the Persian Gulf, have modernized their economies and consider a good relationship with Israel to be in their interest, especially to deal with countries like Iran. So these countries no longer need Turkey to serve as a mediator or backdoor channel, which will drastically minimize Turkey’s geopolitical role in the Israel-Arab conflict. Clearly, the new peace presents a threat to both Turkey’s dream to revive Ottoman-style rule and Iran’s ambition to overthrow the Saudis’ religious dominance.

Erdogan’s ego will hardly tolerate this new insignificance, as he ultimately dreams of reviving the Ottoman Empire. His dreams are partially based on the perception that Turkey is a modern state that can deal with all parties in global politics, and partially based on an ever-increasing focus on Islamization and radicalization. Every step he now takes is a declaration of his vision for an era of neo-Ottoman rule.

Intentionally radicalizing his nation, Erdogan seems committed to undo everything that the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, accomplished in his time. Ataturk successfully distanced the Turks from the Ottoman Empire and forged a new identity for the Turkish people by building the modern Republic of Turkey. He saw a peaceful, modern, and moderate Islamic country with secular tendencies to be a good fit for the Turkish people in a modern world. He also promoted a pro-Western vision for Turkey.

In 2016, Erdogan showed his dissatisfaction with the current geographical boundaries of Turkey when he sent troops to occupy northern Syria. Ever since then he has asserted his rule in the Muslim world as a viable option for a new caliphate. While his armed forces fought in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, Erdogan asserted Turkey’s claim on parts of the region. Undermining Arab dominance in the Middle East and beyond, he ascended to a prominent position in the Muslim world. Arabs who suffered under the Ottoman Empire will reject Erdogan’s dream, but the ever-changing nature of global and regional conflicts may force non-Arab Muslim-majority countries to pledge allegiance to Turkey and create a partial caliphate, which would force Arab Muslim-majority nations to submit.

The new peace between Israel and the Arab states, for which the United States is responsible, threatens Erdogan’s plans and diminishes Turkey’s power in the region. In response, Erdogan condemns the Arab states’ latest moves, and he is investing in non-Arab countries to create goodwill. But he is also engaging in conversations with countries and groups with extreme Islamic ideologies. His religious appeal to revive the caliphate has received mixed responses at home and abroad. At home, liberal and modern Turkish people have condemned Erdogan’s steps to Islamize the country, but his following among the conservative and radical Turkish population has grown. The more he does for these conservative and radical groups, the more they will expect of him. So Erdogan’s condemnation of the Arabs normalizing ties with Israel is a calculated attempt to (1) please radical groups worldwide and gain support from like-minded leaders and (2) discredit the Arabs as the global leaders of Muslims.