I was shocked when I watched on CNN as my prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, abandoned a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos called "Gaza: The Case for Middle East Peace." My first reaction involved an attempt at patriotic rationalization, as I hoped that there must have been some serious cause that led him to behave in this manner. So, I started to look for some answers.
After watching the panel's entire discussion with great attention, it became clear that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres spoke in an aggressive and accusatory manner. Moreover, David Ignatius, the panel's mediator, seemed to unjustly mediate speeches, and behaved very rudely towards Erdogan by touching his shoulder in order to interrupt his speech. As a result, Erdogan got angry, blamed Israel for deaths in Palestine, and left the panel.
I am against all types of civilian killings made by both Israel and Hamas. I also believe that Turkey should show a consistent reaction against all civilian killings in the Middle East region, considering the state's role as peace-broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, after Erdogan's reaction, Turkey took the risk of losing her peace-brokering role in the Middle East, and of being identified as an ally of Hamas—and, by extension, Iran. Despite the fact that the majority of people in Turkey are very sensitive about civilian killings in Palestine, they as a people do not want to be identified as close allies of Hamas and Iran. As a result, Erdogan's behavior in Davos put Turkey's foreign policy in a dangerous crossroads between East and West.
Now, let's analyze the considerable costs and benefits of Erdogan's withdrawal from the Davos panel. Firstly, all possible benefits of this action fall upon Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party, whereas all possible and long-term costs fall upon Turkey's reputation in the international arena. Erdogan, who is currently the most popular leader in Turkey, and whose popularity in the Arab world is growing, will achieve more success in the following elections due to the growing nationalistic tendencies in Turkey. Despite the fact that his party got 47% of votes in the recent elections, most Turkish people support Erdogan's reaction in Davos. For example, thousands of supporters of JDP welcomed him at the airport as a national hero when he returned from Davos. However, I do not believe that his extreme reaction at the summit was designed to attract more votes in the upcoming election. Rather, he was driven by his emotions in responding to Peres.
The major cost of his reaction involves the Kurdish population in Turkey. Turkey suffers much from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK (a Kurdish separatist terrorist group that uses force against civilian and military targets), much like Israel suffers from Hamas. Turkey may be faced with various hardships in the international arena in its attempts to legitimate the Turkish army's fight against PKK terrorism. Most theories of international relations argue that rationality is much more important than emotions in diplomacy in order to minimize the costs for countries. This is not just for Turkey or the Middle East; it applies to all countries throughout the world.
Where to now? There are two paths for Turkey. First, we grow close to Iran and Hamas, and then Erdogan would become identified with leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The second path would be very different. As many journalists mentioned in Turkey, after Davos, subordinated Middle Eastern people who have been poor, powerless and looking for a popular leader for years internalized Erdogan as the new leader of the region. He can therefore work towards peace in the Middle East, thanks to his increasing popularity. Just like most citizens of modern Turkey, I of course prefer the second path. Erdogan should modify his strong language and choose rationality rather than emotion in diplomacy in order to achieve this second goal. This could be a great opportunity for Middle Eastern peace, if and only if Erdogan can succeed at transforming this unlucky outburst. Erdogan did not just abandon Davos last week, but in doing so he also took a great responsibility for peace, so that, from now on, he has to be both sensitive and gentle in diplomacy.
In order to establish widely-discussed peace in Middle East, Erdogan is now bound to take the support of people who are strongly opposed to political Islam. If he received support only from the elements of political Islam, Turkey would be left out of the West, and threatening polarization in the Middle East would increase. It is for this reason that I think that Erdogan became more responsible for protecting the balancing role of Turkey in the Middle East since he took the risk of being marginalized or radicalized by his response in Davos. He may want to appear as the new popular leader of the Middle East but I, as a Turkish citizen, do not want to see the dissolution of an alliance between Turkey and West.
Honor is one of the most important ideas for all nations, including Turkey, the United States, Israel and Palestine. Moreover, indignity against a prime minister means indignity against his nation, and so I support the substance of Erdogan's reaction. However, I do not support his type of reaction. Like so many others, I desire peace in the Middle East, and I believe that Turkey as a balancing power or peace-broker would be more beneficial to Middle Eastern peace than a Turkey which turns its back to the West.
The author is an exchange student studying at Columbia College. He attends Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. He is a junior studying political science and international relations.