Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely to start blaming Israel for the attempted coup that threatened to depose him over the weekend, due to a perceived connection between the Jewish state and the cleric he accuses of instigating the putsch, a leading Israeli expert on Turkey said.
Erdogan blames the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, now in exile in Pennsylvania, for instigating the failed coup. Gülen, who denies the allegations, has had ties with various Jewish groups and in the 1990s met with Israel’s chief rabbi and a senior Israeli diplomat.
“Even though Turkish and Israeli leaders are saying that the coup won’t affect the rapprochement between the two countries, in my mind it’s just a question of time until Erdogan starts talking about Israel in the context of the coup,” Bar-Ilan University’s Efrat Aviv told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
The Turkish president might wait until the normalization process between Ankara and Jerusalem has been concluded before publicly scapegoating Israel, surmised Aviv, who focuses her research on modern Turkey and Gülen’s spiritual movement. “But I have no doubt that this will happen. I don’t think that Erdogan will accept Israel with open arms.”
On June 29, the Israeli government approved a reconciliation deal with Turkey outlining a course of action that would end the six-year standoff between Ankara and Israel, at the end of which the two countries will exchange ambassadors.
The agreement stipulates that before full diplomatic relations are restored, the Turkish parliament has to pass a law protecting IDF troops who participated in the 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, that killed 10 Turks, from criminal and civil claims. Senior officials in both countries have asserted that the failed coup attempt in no way stands in the way of the normalization process. Currently it is unclear, however, when the Turkish parliament will vote on the matter.
“The normalization of our relations with Israel will not be adversely affected by this event,” said Özdem Sanberk, a former Turkish top diplomat and chief foreign policy adviser to prime minister Turgut Özal. “Regarding the decision by the parliament of the laws concerning the normalization deal, no one can anticipate the attitude of the parliament as it is a sovereign organ of the state.”
While it is obvious that Erdogan’s popularity will increase in the aftermath of the attempted putsch, “it is too early to make pessimistic scenarios for the future,” Sandberk told The Times of Israel.
Populist politicians in Turkey tend to blame either Israel or a Jewish conspiracy for most evils befalling their country, said Aykan Erdemir, who served as a member of parliament for the opposition CHP party from 2011 until 2015. “Thanks to the ongoing Turkish-Israeli normalization, Israel and Jews were spared from such hate speech and scapegoating this time.”
However, he added, “since the failed coup attempt, there is a dramatic rise in vigilantism and Islamist hate speech on Turkish streets. It is only a matter of time [before] the crowds scapegoat minorities.”
Supporters of Erdogan’s AKP party “could take advantage of the current unrest and mobilization to propagate anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic messages,” Erdemir, who is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told The Times of Israel on Saturday.
The Gülen movement’s Israel connection
Aviv, who teaches at Bar-Ilan’s Middle Eastern studies department and is a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, has done extensive research into the moderate Islamic Gülen movement and its connection to Israel and the global Jewish community.
In an article she published in Turkish Policy Quarterly six years ago, she researched Fethullah Gülen’s interfaith outreach, which included meetings with several Jewish groups both in Turkey and the US.
“Gülen sees great importance in disseminating tolerance because of the fact that the world is a global village, and it is imperative to lay the foundation for communication without making distinctions between Christians, Jews, Atheists or Buddhists,” she wrote.
“Because of this approach, of perceiving dialogue as both a religious and a moral-national-social obligation, Gülen met with countless leaders and key people from the three religions during the 1990s. He met with Jewish leaders, both secular and religious, inside and outside of Turkey, in order to promote dialogue between Judaism and Islam.”
In the late 1990s, the reclusive imam met at least twice with senior delegations from the Anti-Defamation League, which at the time was headed by Abraham Foxman, according to Aviv.
“Gülen talked about his moderation regarding Islam, the Jews, Israel, and expressed reasonable and non-extremist views,” Kenneth Jacobson, who currently serves as the ADL’s deputy national director, recalled in 2005 about his first personal encounter with Gülen in New Jersey. “It was a very good meeting, very friendly.”
Jacobson’s second meeting with Gülen took place in 1998 at Gülen’s initiative — and at his Istanbul residence — and was also attended by then-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Leon Levy, Aviv writes.
“We met, and it was another pleasant encounter. We were given gifts,” Jacobson recalled, adding that Gülen reiterated his message of moderation. “He presented himself as someone that cares about moderation in Turkey and cares about a moderate Islam and as someone interested in good relations with Israel and the Jews.”
In 1998, Gülen met with Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron in Istanbul, a televised visit that came about at the initiative of the cultural attaché in the Israeli consulate. “This was the first time that a chief rabbi came on an official visit from Israel to Turkey, and the second visit of a chief rabbi in a Muslim country,” according to Aviv.
Israel’s consul-general to Istanbul at the time, Eli Shaked, participated in the meeting.
“The Israeli Foreign Ministry thought that a meeting with Gülen could help quell the hatred and resistance to Israel and/or Jews, and therefore they authorized it,” Aviv wrote. Bakshi-Doron had a different plan: he sought to ask for the cleric’s help in freeing Iranian Jews imprisoned for alleged espionage. Gülen declined the request, arguing that he has no ties to Iran.
During the meeting, Gülen said he wanted to open a Muslim school in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The chief rabbi agreed in principle, but the initiative was rejected by the government, according to Aviv. Gülen was also reported to have been interested in visiting Israel, but the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem did not authorize the plan.
During a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2010, Gülen criticized the organizers of the Gaza-bound flotilla for not having secured Israel’s okay for embarking as “a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.”
Immediately after this weekend’s failed coup, Erdogan blamed members of Gülen’s movement, referring to it as “Gulenist Terrorist Organization” and threatening harsh punishment, including the reinstatement of the death penalty. On Wednesday, Turkey will submit to the US an official extradition request for the 75-year-old cleric.