Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s hold on power is being challenged these days as he faces an onslaught of corruption allegations and the emergence of a powerful religious leader — and former ally — as a new enemy. In fact, with hindsight it appears that the fallout between Fethullah Gulen, who heads Turkey’s influential Hizmet movement, and Erdogan, one of Israel’s strongest critics today, may have actually begun over Erdogan’s response to a crisis with Israel.
In 2010, Turks almost universally assumed the role of victims in response to the killing of nine Turks by Israeli commandos in a botched raid on the ship Mavi Mamara. The ship, laden with humanitarian supplies, had sought to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, and Turkish blood had been spilled. But few Turks were willing to question what part the flotilla’s organizers and supporters might have played in finally blowing up the already strained relations with Israel, which only a few years earlier was a regional ally.
But on June 4, only a few days after the incident, Gulen, a reclusive Islamic preacher living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania, roundly criticized the organizers’ failure to reach an accommodation with Israel. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gulen described their conduct as “a sign of defying authority [that] will not lead to fruitful matters.”
That was the exact opposite of the tack taken by Erdogan, his close ally. Fully supporting the would-be blockade busters, the Turkish leader angrily demanded a full apology and compensation from Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to comply moved Erdogan — an Islamist who had nevertheless earlier supported Turkey’s close military and political ties with Israel — to put relations with Israel on an even more hostile footing.
In retrospect, the interview marked the start of a fateful split between Erdogan and the 73-year-old preacher, who directs his followers in Turkey from a 28-acre compound in the Pocono Mountains.
It is impossible to predict how the power struggle in which these two figures are now locked may eventually affect Turkey’s cold relations with Israel. But the divide separating them on this issue, among others, makes this one battle worth watching.
In recent weeks, Turkish investigators pursuing their corruption probe have gone after government ministers and their relatives. Police authorities have also actively investigated businessmen close to Erdogan and to his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, AKP. Erdogan, in turn, has fought back by reassigning hundreds of police officers and demoting the chief prosecutor in the case in an effort to quash the probe.
It is widely believed that the investigation is being pushed by followers of Gulen among the senior echelons of the judiciary and the police. From the start of his preaching in the Aegean city of Izmir in the 1970s, Gulen has urged his followers to work their way into state institutions that had previously been the almost exclusive province of Turkey’s secularist elite.