ISTANBUL — Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn’t crazy about Israel, a fact he underscored during the World Economic Forum’s Middle East conference that ended Wednesday night in the Turkish metropolis. But despite his aversion to the Jewish state, Erdogan this week did exchange some niceties with an Orthodox Jew who spoke up defending Israel.
Moments after Erdogan had delivered the Forum’s opening address Tuesday morning, in which he accused Israel of “killing innocent people, children, babies, women and elderly in masses” by bombardments and of keeping people “in the largest open-air prison in the world,” an American-born rabbi who had flown in for the conference went up to the prime minister and politely introduced himself.
Though surrounded by international VIPs, and bodyguards, Erdogan took time to hear out the rabbi, who was easily recognizable as such with his bushy beard and big black velvet skullcap. In a friendly tone, the rabbi told Erdogan that his brothers and sisters in Israel never deliberately kill babies or anyone else. In fact, Israeli Jews love life and despise death, the rabbi said.
Erdogan listened but did not want to discuss the matter. He just patted the rabbi on the shoulder and promised that the Jews in Turkey are safe.
A day later, at a cultural soiree Erdogan hosted in the garden of the magnificent Dolmabahce Palace, the rabbi and the prime minister met again and exchanged another warm handshake.
If the rabbi had hoped to achieve any softening of Erdogan’s stance and rhetoric toward Israel, he was to be disappointed. At that very reception, the prime minister made explicit that bilateral relations would remain downgraded until Israel apologizes for killing nine Turkish citizens during a 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla dispatched from his shores, pays damages to the victims and ends the Gaza blockade.
Speaking to Turks from all walks of life over three days here, it sometimes seemed that Erdogan is uniquely obsessed with what happened after IDF commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara two years ago. “Even Erdogan’s press secretary told me it’s time to get over this rubbish and move on,” another Israeli who attended the conference said. But Erdogan is central to modern Turkey, and so his obsessions set the tone.
There were no official delegates from Israel at the Istanbul forum — Jerusalem generally sends at least one representative to these kind of conferences — but the few journalists, NGO personnel and businessmen were treated with scrupulous courtesy. No matter: Erdogan holds the key. And Turkish ministers, speaking off the record, said they expect Israeli-Turkish relations to remain ice-cold for the foreseeable future.
Some Israelis charged that Israel should have tried harder to use this conference to mend relations. Others speculated that they were not given the chance to do so.
Rumor had it that the Turkish government explicitly asked the WEF not to invite officials from two countries: Israel and Armenia. The Times of Israel tried to speak to a senior WEF official in charge of the Middle East, but the organization apparently felt it was better not to comment and so an interview, promised a day earlier, was canceled.
“My guess is they don’t really want to talk about this,” a lower-level WEF staffer said.
Another said that the WEF invited Israeli businessmen and civil society figures as usual, but, asked specifically about invitations for government officials, offered no response.
Shimon Peres is one Israeli leader who has very publicly crossed Erdogan’s path within the WEF framework, and it would be interesting to know whether it was Israel’s president, or Turkey’s prime minister, who ensured there would be no repeat face-off on Erdogan’s home turf. The Turkish prime minister basically called him a murderer during a panel debate at a WEF conference in Davos three years ago and then stormed offstage.
Peres attended the WEF’s annual meeting in the Swiss resort town earlier this year, so maybe he’s WEFed out, or maybe he wasn’t invited. His office told The Times of Israel that he could not go to the Istanbul summit because he needed to focus on his trip, next week, to the US, where President Barack Obama will award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At 88, even the indefatigable Peres can’t be expected to travel the globe every day; still, the flight to Istanbul takes two hours, and there was a four-day gap between the end of the Turkish meeting and the president’s flight to the US.
Asked why there were no official Israeli representatives at all in Istanbul, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel before the conference that the “atmosphere the Turkish government has created is not propitious for visits by Israeli officials.” Indeed, an Istanbul court this week notified the Israeli Justice Ministry about its decision to indict four Israeli military leaders for the flotilla operation.
And so it came to pass that Erdogan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could hurl harsh accusations at Israel from the speakers’ podium without anybody to counterbalance them. When Erdogan furiously left the stage in Davos and vowed never to return, back in 2009, he did so because he felt that Peres was given too much time to explain the Israeli position while he himself was not allowed to properly respond. This week, Erdogan had the stage all to himself.
Not that the Jewish state was the focal point of the conference — far from it. But whenever Israel was mentioned it was in a negative context. The participants of a panel on “Religion, State and Society in the Muslim world” agreed that the term “Islamic terrorism” is a misnomer, as history knows also of terrorist acts committed by Jews and Christians; almost nobody challenged that conclusion.
The Turkish staff as well as the Geneva-based organizers were exceedingly friendly to this Israeli reporter. They tried to arrange interviews with high-profile participants, but I had more success simply buttonholing leaders like Abbas and Egypt’s Amr Moussa; some officials, including from non-Arab states, canceled after first having agreed to be interviewed.
“I feel they don’t want to offend their hosts,” one WEF staffer said, referring to the Israeli-Turkish diplomatic impasse. Another factor, though, as one Israeli businessman said, could be the shocking truth that the world doesn’t revolve around Israel.
Whatever the rest of the world thinks, though, the Turkish media certainly does keep a keen eye on Israel, especially regarding the flotilla incident and the demanded apology. The press had a field day during the conference with reports of comments by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said Israel shouldn’t apologize for the flotilla raid just as the Americans didn’t apologize for mistakenly killing 24 Pakistanis in a drone strike last November.
“Yet another Israeli refusal to apologize for the deaths of nine Turks,” one front-page story blared. Another reported, somewhat sneeringly, that the foreign minister from Jerusalem “once again reiterated an Israeli claim that soldiers who boarded the Mavi Marmara and clashed with those on the ship were clearly exercising their right to self-defense.”
A third paper, on an inside page, adorned a straight news story on the Marmara-Pakistan parallel drawn by Liberman with the following observation: “A US investigation found that US forces, given what information they had available at the time, acted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon.” The notion that the Israeli commandos aboard by Marmara had similarly felt their lives to be at risk, in the face of thugs wielding clubs and iron bars, did not seem to merit remotely serious consideration.
The same day’s Turkish papers did report some good news about the Jews — in their local sections: The Jewish community of the remote Van province, near the Iranian border, inaugurated a new school in the presence of government officials and Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva. The new building is a “sign of patriotism,” one paper reported Haleva as saying.
In the media, as in diplomacy, the prime minister evidently sets the tone. As the absence of Israelis at his WEF summit and his encounter with the rabbi signaled, Erdogan’s Turkey isn’t interested in hearing the Israeli side of stories, but is pleased to declare that its own Jews are safe and well.