Erdogan Scandal in Davos

From Walkout to Wipe Out

Turkey's prime minister Erdogan walked out of the World Economic Forum in Davos in an argument over the Israeli military operation in Gaza – and received a hero's welcome back home. A cheap triumph that could cost him and his country dearly, writes Kai Strittmatter

Erdogan leaving the podium in Davos (photo: AP)
Gesture of defiance: an angry Erdogan broke off a podium discussion with Peres in Davos on the recent Israeli military campaign in Gaza

​​ Two men summoned up a respectful tone for each other, although they don't usually get on. A bridge was built across the rifts of a longstanding hostility. With sobriety and pragmatism, they worked towards solving a decades-old and highly emotional conflict.

Erdogan showed the world how to do it in Davos: for the first time, the Turkish prime minister held talks with the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan. Soon, rumour has it, the border between their two countries will be opened. A genuine sensation.

The man from Kasimpasa

But there was no time for sensations, because the other Erdogan entered the stage only a few minutes later. The statesman made way for the "man from Kasimpasa", as the liberal Turkish newspaper Radikal wrote. Kasimpasa is the suburb of Istanbul where Erdogan grew up.

In Istanbul, the area is a synonym for hot-headed machismo; for men who won't take any messing around.

Davos had its scandal. Erdogan's fans in Istanbul liked what they saw live from Davos: a man who told the Israelis and their friends in the West where to go. They celebrated their prime minister like a returning hero, a new "world leader".

Genuine outrage

Hamas sent a congratulatory telegram. And Erdogan seemed to enjoy his success at home. But it was a cheap triumph that could yet cost the prime minister and his country dearly.

Turkey is the only Muslim country with close links to Israel, something that Erdogan, a son of political Islam, did not change when his party came to power in 2002. Since Israel's Gaza offensive, however, he has been one of the country's harshest critics.

AKP supporters in Ankara (photo: AP)
On his return from Switzerland Erdogan was hailed by thousands of AKP supporters at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport for his invectives at the World Economic Forum

​​ There are plenty of reasons for his anger: genuine outrage over the killings; the feeling that the Israelis have stabbed him in the back just when he had been mediating between them and Syria – including over Hamas; and not least the upcoming election in Turkey. Seldom has anti-Israeli feeling run so high in the population as during the past few weeks.

Erdogan was probably attempting to cover his back on the issue, especially because of his government's positive relations with Tel Aviv. The stridency with which he did so, however, surprised observers, as did his theatrical walkout from the panel discussion in Davos.

Erdogan certainly had reason for his annoyance: the Israeli President Shimon Peres was given all the time in the world for his self-righteous speech and was even allowed to attack Erdogan personally on several occasions. Erdogan, in contrast, was cut off and interrupted. Nevertheless, his reaction was an amateurish performance for a statesman, damaging his own cause.

Domestic policy stalemate

Turkey's foreign policy primarily pursues two interlinked objectives: cementing the country's role as a new regional power and working towards EU membership. Turkey has developed unprecedented diplomatic activities towards these ends.

In the light of the domestic policy stalemate, Erdogan's only chance to shine has been pro-active foreign policy. This front is where he breaks taboos, working on reconciliation with old enemies such as the North Iraq Kurds or the Armenians. And secondly, Turkey has become an active mediator, using its special position in the case of Israel in particular. Turkey held secret negotiations with Syria for Israel, and also with Lebanon. There have even been talks with Hamas.

"I cannot allow anyone to damage the reputation and esteem of my country," Erdogan defended his amateurish behaviour in Davos. What constitutes reputation and esteem is a contentious point, but one thing's for sure: it does not mean disregarding the interests of the country. Erdogan has certainly dramatically disqualified himself as a mediator for some time to come.

Kai Strittmatter

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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