Erdogan's Grand Vision for Turkey and the Arab World

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Erdogan's Grand Vision for Turkey and the Arab World

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It began with a dramatic scene at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2009. During a panel discussion on the Israeli intervention in Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan walked off the stage when he was refused extra time to speak. Immediately prior to his departure, he angrily told Israeli President Shimon Peres that "when it comes to killing, you [Israelis] know well how to kill."

At first, some observers thought Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israel's intervention in Gaza was merely a momentary lapse of diplomatic restraint. The following 12 months, however, showed that Erdogan's outburst reflects what appears to be a radical change in Turkey's foreign policy toward Israel. The inflammatory language continued when the Turkish leader promised a retaliatory air strike "like an earthquake" if Israel were to violate Turkey's air space in attacking Iran. He also predicted that "Allah's revenge" would come on Israel.

One year after the angry remark in Davos, the Turkish government threatened to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv. According to Erdogan, such retaliation was appropriate after Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon delivered a protest to Turkey's ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol in a humiliating manner—refusing to shake his hand and having him sit in a lower position. Israel's complaint was about the popular Turkish television series Valley of the Wolves, which, among other offenses, depicted Israeli intelligence operatives kidnapping children to convert them to Judaism.

Even in averting the diplomatic crisis, the war of words continued. Ayalon did not retract his criticism of Turkey, though he did declare his intention to be more careful in the future. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then said he was satisfied with Ayalon's statement but emphasized that the criticism of Turkey was justified. The Turkish foreign ministry in the capital of Ankara responded by emphasizing its historic responsibility to warn and criticize Israel.

Prior to the Davos incident, Turkey and Israel had long enjoyed close diplomatic relations and had even conducted small-scale joint military maneuvers. Turkey also had an important function as a potential mediator in any future peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. Why would Turkey change its approach toward Israel? And what does this mean for the future of the Middle East?

Turkey's uncertain future in Europe

Since World War II, Turkey has been a loyal supporter of the West. Turkish troops fought alongside U.S. forces in the Korean War; and as a member of NATO, Turkey was home to military installations monitoring Soviet activities. America supports Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Turkey has had "associated status" since 1963 (then with EU predecessor the European Economic Community), and it first applied for full membership in 1987. When negotiations began in 2005, Erdogan emphasized that his country would settle for nothing less than full membership.

Progress on negotiations has been slow, with the EU expecting Turkey to amend its constitution to prevent intervention in state affairs by the military, to improve human rights and to give greater rights to its ethnic minorities. Since 2005, only 11 out of 35 "negotiating chapters" on admission to the EU have been opened for discussion, and only one has been "provisionally completed" so far.

The main point of contention between Turkey and the European Union is Turkey's intransigence on the issue of Cyprus. The Turks control the northern part of this island country and reject the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus (or Greek Cyprus), which rules over the southern part of the island—and the Republic of Cyprus is an EU member.

In a diplomatic note signed in Ankara in July 2005, Turkey had recognized the EU customs union as including Cyprus. That agreement was the last obstacle removed in paving the way for the start of official negotiations on Turkish EU membership. Yet after official negotiations began in October 2005, Turkey continued its blockade of all ships and planes originating from southern Cyprus. This stance violates the basic EU principle that all member states recognize each other and impose no trade barriers.

If Turkey's position on Cyprus remains unchanged, then acceptance of Turkey into full EU membership would require sacrificing basic principles. And that does not appear likely in this case.

Even if negotiations are completed successfully, all it would take for Turkey's bid for EU membership to fail is for one EU member to block approval for admission. With national referendums a possibility in more than one country—notably France and the Netherlands—final approval is by no means a certainty.

This prospect is what observers see as the catalyst behind Turkey's shift in foreign policy. Last summer even U.S. President Barack Obama warned that Turkey might align itself outside the West if negotiations on its bid for EU membership remain inconclusive.

Obama told Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra that he did "not think the slow pace or European reluctance is the only or predominant factor at the root of some changes in the orientation recently observed in the Turkish attitude. But it is inevitably destined to play a role in how the Turkish people see Europe . . . if they do not feel themselves part of the European family, it is natural that they should end up looking elsewhere for alliances and affiliations" (quoted by Reuters, July 8, 2010).

Turkey's courtship of the Islamic Arab world

With future EU membership uncertain, Turkey has begun courting its historic realm of influence: the Islamic Arab world, much of which was once under Ottoman Turkish rule for hundreds of years. Erdogan's visit to the Persian Gulf region in January 2011 makes President Obama's comments seem prophetic. Speaking on Jan. 11 at the Turkish-Arab Relations Conference in Kuwait, Erdogan reminded his listeners that Muslim Turks and Arabs had resisted Christian crusaders together. And he urged Arabs and Turks of today to forge their own union and determine the fate of the Middle East:

"The Arabs are our brothers and sisters. We are their brothers and sisters . . . Regardless of what some say, we will continue to develop brotherhood and cooperation with our Arab brothers and sisters . . . We will not turn our back to regions with which we have been sharing friendship and brotherhood for centuries. Our union is political, economic, commercial and cultural. We are members of the same civilization. We share a common history. We wrote our joint history together . . .

"Through solidarity, we can overcome the Palestine problem and end the pain in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not have to apply at others to help us. Yet, at foremost, we need to establish our own union. We can strengthen stability in Lebanon and prevent terror acts in Egypt. Through solidarity, we can overcome poverty in the region" ("We Will Determine Our Own Foreign Policy, Turkish Premier Says," The Journal of Turkish Weekly, Jan. 11, 2011, emphasis added).

With Turkey's open criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, Erdogan and his government are increasingly popular among the Arab populations of the Middle East. "When children in Gaza were massacred," he said, "we felt their pain as if our own children went through a massacre. Jerusalem's problem is our problem. Gaza's problem is our problem" (ibid.).

In fact, analysts see Turkey's shift in foreign policy toward Israel as a move calculated to legitimize any future leadership role for Turkey in the region. The shift appears to be paying off, with Erdogan in 2010 being awarded the Arab world's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam.

Turkey and a future Islamic confederation

Turkey's independent foreign policy appears to be shifting in a direction that was warned of in Bible prophecy millennia ago. Psalm 83 contains an intriguing prophecy of many Middle Eastern nations that, while it may have applied in part to events of ancient times, appears to be as yet unfulfilled and to possibly tie in with end-time events. If so, it foretells a confederation of Arab nations and Turkey determined to eliminate Israel.

"They have taken crafty counsel against Your people, and consulted together against Your sheltered ones. They have said, 'Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.' For they have consulted together with one consent; they form a confederacy against You: The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites; Moab and the Hagrites; Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek; Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre; Assyria also has joined with them; they have helped the children of Lot" (verses 3-8).

These biblical names are significant when we understand the areas and peoples to which this prophecy refers. Edom includes the Palestinians and some of the Turks. The Ishmaelites, descendants of Ishmael, are many of the Arab peoples throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Moab is the area of central Jordan. The Hagrites appears to be other descendants of Hagar, mother of Ishmael.

Gebal, meaning "mountain" or "boundary," is commonly equated with the Phoenician city of Byblos, modern Jubayl in Lebanon. Ammon refers to northern Jordan around Amman, the capital (which gets its name from Ammon). Amalek appears to refer to a branch of Edomite Palestinians. Philistia is the area around what is today known as the Gaza Strip. Anciently, Tyre was a major city-state in southern Lebanon along the Mediterranean coast. The children of Lot refers to Moab and Ammon—again, regions of modern-day Jordan.

Arab unity has long been elusive, but slowly a common purpose is bringing the different peoples of the Arab world together. This common purpose is the desire to destroy the nation of Israel and its chief backer, the United States of America, along with the West's liberal culture, long perceived as a threat to the Muslim way of life. Edom, which includes modern-day Turkey, is mentioned first in the prophecy of Psalm 83 and therefore seems to play a prominent role in this development.

Turkey and the European Union

Another nation listed in Psalm 83 is Assyria. While in a historic/geographic sense that could refer to what is now northern Iraq, the reference could be an ethnic one to inhabitants of Central Europe, whose ancestors "migrated into Europe from the Caucasus and the countries around the Black and Caspian Seas" (Smith's Smaller Classical Dictionary, 1910, reprinted 1940, p. 226).

Hundreds of years before Christ, the Hebrew prophet Daniel foretold future occurrences in the Middle East and the world at large, including Europe. His prophecies were later complemented and fleshed out in the book of Revelation, revealed to the apostle John near the end of the first century.

The prophecies these men delivered show that a European-centered superpower will rise to dominate the world in the end time, just before Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. As revealed to John, this superpower will be a union of 10 rulers of nations or groups of nations (Revelation 17:12-14). By all appearances, this final superpower may not be that long in coming. The foundation is being built before our eyes, and prophecy seems to show cooperation with Middle Eastern peoples in opposing Israel.

But what if Turkey's bid to join the European Union is unsuccessful? Would that negate prophetic indications of cooperation? Not necessarily. There is always the possibility of a strategic alliance based on a "privileged partnership."

Gündüz Aktan, who had held several diplomatic posts for Ankara and helped write Turkey's application for membership to the European Union, wondered before negotiations had even started whether full membership would be the best course for his country: "Negotiations could last 20 years, but a 'privileged partnership' could be decided upon immediately, and Turkey would not be required to give up full membership at a later date. Turkey would be given a vote in the committee of European defense ministers. As a 'privileged partner' Turkey would receive nearly as much financial assistance as a full member without being forced to accept many EU standards which would result in higher [domestic] prices" (translated from Die Welt, June 8, 2005).

Aktan did not mention the most important aspect of all: Since Turkey has announced that it will not accept anything other than full membership in the EU, a "privileged partnership" offered by the EU as an alternative to full membership would be rejected. The result would be strained relations between the EU and Turkey, lasting years. If, on the other hand, Turkey were to withdraw its bid for membership unilaterally—possibly to save face because of the likelihood that its bid for membership will be rejected—it could accept the "privileged partnership" and retain cordial relations with Europe.

Despite tensions that might exist now over the question of Turkish EU membership, it appears Turkey will remain affiliated with Europe. This is a country that straddles both Europe and Muslim Asia—forming a bridge both geographically and culturally between East and West. And, as a possible key player in a future confederation with the Arabs, it seems that Turkey will also provide a link between the Arab Islamic Middle East and Europe.  WNP