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What makes Erdogan tick?

First published by Haaretz

Clearly, the dramatic changes the Israel-Turkey relationship have undergone over the past three years have a lot to do with the man who has been prime minister of Turkey since 2003. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been especially outspoken in his criticism of Israel, and has pushed what were until recently close diplomatic and military relations to the verge of a complete break. What makes Erdogan tick?

Wikileaks documents originating in the U.S Embassy in Ankara contain a series of observations about Erdogan’s personality and the way he functions, based on information from various sources. Using material from the years 2004-2010, and with due caution, it is possible to shed light on some psychological traits that influence the premier’s ideological and political conduct.

With his charismatic and persuasive personality, Erdogan has the ability to present himself to a large part of Turkey’s citizenry as a leader who cares about them and who is worthy of being followed. At the same time, he has also impressed world political leaders.

The prime minister is arrogant, viewing himself as an important leader, selected by God to lead the Turkish people − a point he made in a 2003 speech to the congress of his AKP party when he made Koranic-based allusions about his divinely appointed mission. He also sees himself as having a leadership role for the Muslim world. Yet, because he is determined to remain in power, he also has a strong pragmatic streak, as evidenced by the way he has distanced himself from his past radical Islamism, and taken care not to push the political Islamic agenda too hard.

Similarly, even though he does not want to be perceived as pro-American, he acknowledges the importance of good relations with the United States, as when he accepted the deployment in Turkey of a NATO radar system to defend Europe from the Iranian missile threat.

Once Erdogan arrives at a decision or a belief, he does not back down, nor, judging by the Wikileak documents, is he prone to compromise. He relies on only a small circle of advisers and does not seek effective dialogue with either leaders of his own party and government, or the parliament in general. Indeed, it is he who serves as the glue that keeps his party’s leaders, who represent a wide range of viewpoints and positions, together.

Observers say that Erdogan plans his political steps in advance, with the goal of increasing his control over various institutions. These include the higher-education system, where he ensures that professors with an Islamic orientation be appointed; the judicial system, where he has augmented government supervision by appointing many pro-AKP prosecutors; and even the municipal level, where he has promoted an Islamic agenda ‏(banning alcohol in areas under the auspices of the municipality, and establishing parking lots for women only, and prayer rooms on public ferries‏).

When it comes to Israel, it’s Erdogan who calls the shots, and as such, it is he who is personally responsible for the deterioration in bilateral relations. One source noted that Erdogan has strong anti-Israeli sentiments, based on deeply rooted religious beliefs.

American diplomats reported that sources both inside and outside the Turkish government confirmed the sense that Erdogan simply abhors Israel.

By declaring that any improvement in relations with Israel is conditioned on an end to Israel’s embargo on Gaza, Erdogan has demonstrated his desire to strengthen Ankara’s links with Hamas, and thus to bolster one of the main obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Erdogan’s repeated threats to use the Turkish navy to challenge not only that embargo, but also Cyprus’ plans to drill for oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean, had to be clarified several times by statements from his own office that his remarks had been “quoted out of context.” His threats have elicited a strong rebuke from the European Commission, while Greek Cyprus vowed recently to keep Turkey’s EU entry bid on hold as long as Ankara provocatively challenges the island’s rights.

Last week’s highly publicized trip by Erdogan to the Arab Spring countries also was accompanied by several faux pas on his part. He pressed a reluctant Egyptian government to allow him to visit Gaza, where he expected to be received like a latter-day sultan. The Egyptians, unwilling to further inflame already strained relations with Israel, turned him down. Nor was he permitted to speak in Tahrir Square, and his fiery Cairo Opera House speech was not broadcast on TV. Though he was initially received like a hero by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, his call on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution drew an immediate rebuke from Essam al-Arian, the No. 2 man in that organization’s Freedom and Justice Party: “We welcome … Erdogan as a prominent leader, but we do not think he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future.”

In Tunisia, Erdogan declared that Turkey’s cooperation with Iran against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party ‏(PKK‏) is “going well” and that the two countries “may act together at Qandil [the northern Iraq region where PKK guerrillas are entrenched].” Iran’s ambassador to Turkey immediately ruled out such a possibility. Even the pro-government, Islamist paper Today’s Zaman published an article criticizing Erdogan for his “gunboat diplomacy.” A September 8 editorial in the Cyprus Mail noted that the leader who was not long ago a champion of regional stability has suddenly turned into its biggest threat. Indeed, Erdogan’s government seems to have moved from a “zero problems” policy in the Middle East to − to paraphrase Charles de Gaulle − a strategy of “all-azimuth hostility.”

* Prof. Shaul Kimhi is head of the psychology department of Tel Hai Academic College. Dr. Ely Karmon is senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy, at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.