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Analyst: Erdogan "retracts" on Zionism

To start with, Zionism was a crime against humanity; now Recep Tayyip Erdogan says ”We still recognise Israel”.

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By Martin Slesøe Sørensen, Turkey Correspondent

Less than three weeks ago Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a UN forum in Vienna, that Zionism is a crime against humanity alongside fascism and anti-Semitism. On Wednesday the Turkish prime minister meets the Danish Queen and prime minister with a different message.

“I understand that my statement in Vienna led to some debate. But no one should misunderstand what I said,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan tells Politiken in an e-mail.

“Everyone should know that my criticisms on certain issues, especially Gaza and the settlements, are directed at Israeli policies. And it’s entirely natural for us to continue to criticize Israel, as long as it will not give up its approach of denying the right to exist of the Palestinian state. On the other hand, we have recognized and continue to recognize the Israeli State, within the framework of the 1967 borders and on the basis of the two-state solution,” he says.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called the Zionism comment “objectionable” and 89 members of Congress have written to the Turkish leader asking him to retract his statement. He has not yet done that, but in an interview with Politiken he explains his comment for the first time and says that it was targeted at Israel’s policies and not Israel’s right to exist.

“One should not forget the fact that in the past we have hosted many Israeli Presidents and Prime Ministers in Turkey to reach peace towards a two-state solution. Today as in the past, Turkey supports all international and regional efforts to find a just, lasting, and comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of the two-state vision. My several statements openly condemning anti-Semitism clearly display my position on this issue. In this context, I stand behind my remarks in Vienna,” Erdogan says, at a time when efforts to find a two-state solution are in focus as the US president visits Israel.

Zig-zag manoeuvre

Such a clear support for Israel and its right to exist was not what audiences in Vienna received, and one of Erdogan’s domestic observers says that his new statement is a "retraction" to hide Erdogan’s real views.

“This is one of Erdogan’s frequent zig-zags between his heart and ideological genes on the one hand and his brain and political pragmatism on the other,” says Bural Bekdil, a commentator at the Hürriyet newspaper and one of Erdogan’s main critics.

“His remarks about Zionism were both his honest thoughts and an attempt to see how far he can go in his attacks against Israel – particularly when you think that he said it just a few days before Secretary of State Kerry’ visit. I think he wanted to see how much, if at all, Kerry would make it into an issue during their meeting,” Bekdil says.

Although statements such as those he has made create uncertainty about Turkey’s position and direction, other observers of Turkish politics say that the issue should be studied by eyes rather than ears.

“You should see his actions rather than his words. It would be unfair to take one comment out of a broader context and say tat is what it is about. The statement is more for domestic consumption than part of a cohesive foreign policy,” says Hugh Pope, director of the International Crisis Group think tank in Istanbul.

Another explanation for Erdogan’s lunge at Zionism is that ideology in Tuyrkey is often equated with the most extreme Israeli policy of expansion and not with an historical and more abstract view f the right of Jews to have a homeland.

Several observers thus suggest that Erdogan, as he says himself, may have wanted to say something about the Israeli government’s policy towards the Palestinians, but ended up by questioning the Jewish right to a homeland. Although anti-Zionism is in line with the views of Erdogan’s conservative, religious constituency and upbringing, Pope says these are ideas that he has moved away from over the past 20-30 years.

“It would be wrong to say that Turkey is incurably anti-Semitic, it is not; but the problem exists at the edges of society. That is where Erdogan comes from, but it is not where he is going,” Pope says.

From the EU to Shanghai

Although Erdogan indicates there is nothing to worry about, it is not the first time this year that he has given his allies a shock. Recently he aired the view that Turkey, given European foot-dragging in Turkey’s membership negotiations, should perhaps move its membership application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is a club for a handful of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes in Asia.

Before the EU managed to comment on the statement, Erdogan climbed down on the issue, and with the EU process on the agenda, the Copenhagen meeting is a further confirmation that the EU is Turkey’s primary foreign policy sphere of interest, Pope says, adding that the comments on the Shanghai group and Zionism were ‘embarrassing’, and that they erode Turkey’s goodwill in the West.

Until further notice, the United States has not forced Turkey to drop its Israel criticism if it wants to keep relations with Washington, and nothing seems to suggest that the weekly discussions between Ankara and Washington on Turkey’s neighbours Iran, Iraq and Syria will be disturbed. These three are seen as being more important than even fierce, but only verbal, swipes at Israel.

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