Erdogan's Germany visit ramped up East-West tensions on Israel

The foreign policy gap between Ankara and Berlin is becoming bigger, more complex and higher-stakes

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomes Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, November 17, 2023. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Like a bold uncle, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is often the one person at a gathering to deliver the unvarnished truth, even when it hints at a civilisational clash.

“I speak freely because we do not owe Israel anything,” he said at a Friday press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, referencing his host country’s Second World War guilt in an effort to highlight western hypocrisy on liberty and free speech. “We did not go through the Holocaust, so we are not in such a situation.”

Few would describe Turkey as a paragon of free expression. In fact, in its annual report early this month, the European Commission criticised Turkey’s increasing disregard for human rights and restrictions on free speech.

Even so, Mr Erdogan had a point. Nowhere has the Middle East’s latest war stirred up more historical sensitivities than Germany, which severely curbs criticism of Israel and Jewish people as part of its atonement for historic Nazi atrocities.

While leaders in Brazil, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Belgium and beyond have sharply criticised Israel’s assault on Gaza in recent days, with some labelling it genocide, Germany has moved to muzzle such views. Hamburg issued a decree banning pro-Palestinian protests.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier essentially warned Germans of Arab descent not to support Palestinians, advising them to “take a clear stand against terror”. Berlin schools barred students from wearing the keffiyeh or Palestinian flag and police in the capital blocked two dozen Gaza solidarity protests, including an event to mourn Palestinian children.

Such policies are keenly felt by Turkish officials, as many of those being silenced in Germany are their compatriots. Germany is home to more than three million people of Turkish origin, the country’s largest diaspora community. But it’s not just Turks and other Muslims that view Germany’s stance as problematic.

More than 100 Jewish intellectuals signed a letter condemning Berlin’s policy. Deborah Feldman, a bestselling author raised by Holocaust survivors who lives in Berlin, argued that German measures aim “to criminalise the public expression of Palestinian identity”.

Ironically, more than eight in 10 anti-Semitic attacks in Germany (84 per cent) are committed not by Muslims but by the far right, according to a parliamentary report. Germany’s neo-Nazi groups and anti-immigrant parties such as AfD are kept in check mainly thanks to Turkey’s willingness to keep millions of refugees from entering the EU.

Still, just as the Turkish government’s tacit acceptance of ultra-nationalists leads to the demonisation of minority groups in Turkey, Germany’s blind eye towards domestic xenophobes makes life all the more difficult for its immigrant communities.

Such policies are keenly felt by Turkish officials, as many of those being silenced in Germany are their compatriots

Nearly four in 10 German Muslims have experienced discrimination from German authorities, according to the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research. German footballer Mesut Ozil, the child of Turkish immigrants who played a key role in Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning squad, highlighted the issue when he quit the national team in 2018: “I’m a German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose.”

Like Ozil, most Germans of Turkish origin support Mr Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). This may be the driving force behind German parliament taking up a proposal last week to bar dual passport-holding German Turks from voting in Turkish elections. It’s not clear how this might be enforced short of confiscating Turkish passports, but during Turkey’s May elections, German officials faced Turkish criticism for their unwillingness to open more voting booths, resulting in hours-long wait times.

Another point of divergence is terrorism and the Middle East. Early this month, Germany banned all activities linked to Hamas, labelled a terrorist group by the EU, US and Israel. Turkey, on the other hand, has hosted Hamas leaders and activities for years and reportedly enabled investments that helped the group significantly increase its funding.

Yet both sides are likely to tread lightly due to growing economic ties. German-Turkish trade hit a record high of nearly €52 billion ($56.78 billion) last year, and Germany is Turkey’s top export market, at nearly €25 billion. Only Russia and China send more goods to Turkey than Germany.

Ankara is probably in the tougher position, with local elections looming in March, the Turkish lira continuing to lose value and major defence concerns. Turkish officials last week expressed interest in buying 40 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, which Germany helps build.

Most observers see Mr Scholz as unlikely to approve such a deal, which would leave Turkey again hoping for a thumbs-up on US-made F-16s. It may be contingent on Ankara approving Sweden’s Nato membership, which Turkey’s parliament again delayed last week.

German military exports to Israel have surged 10-fold this year, with most of the deals coming in the past six weeks. So, in response to Mr Erdogan’s press conference statements, Mr Scholz asserted Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, while also denouncing anti-Semitism.

Mr Erdogan, who has long faced accusations of anti-Semitism, said that he had been leading the fight against anti-Semitism. Mr Scholz added that the duo’s divergent views on the conflict underscored the need for dialogue.

Mr Erdogan concurred, adding that if Germany joined Turkey in calling for a Gaza ceasefire, it could be achieved. This might be accurate, but the world may not want to hold its breath waiting for Berlin to criticise Israel.

Published: November 21, 2023, 4:00 AM