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Erdogan in Cairo: Not a New Nasser

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This is the season of hot air in the Middle East and PM Erdogan of Turkey has more of his fair share of it. Not a day passes without a threat/warning/challenge directed at Israel. One threat, which rose eyebrows, was to send the Turkish navy to escort and defend the next flotilla to Gaza. Hours after, the PM office published a clarification, according to which the translation to English was faulty. In the meantime, there were those in Israel who recalled the story about the Ottoman admiral who was sent to attack Malta, but did not find it... "Malta yok," he informed his superiors ("No Malta...).

Funny stuff aside, the current state of affairs between Israel and Turkey is bad enough. Belligerent statements can just inflame it and take it out of control. So was the case with the initial reaction of Foreign Minister Lieberman. As if by Pavlovian reflex, sources close to the hawkish FM that he would retaliate by meeting in public with Armenian and Kurdish adversaries of Turkey. It was PM Netanyahu who displayed enough diplomatic acumen and his office dismissed the hot air originating from the Foreign Ministry office.

Beyond that, the Israeli reaction is very muted, and there are those who argue on the basis of watching Erdogan in action, that this is the right reaction, if the idea is to calm the high tempers in Ankara. In the meantime, the dynamic Premier is issuing threats against Cyprus over plans to produce newly-discovered natural gas and oil off its shores, a threat that put the Greeks on guard. The Turkish Interior Minister threatens to invade Northern Iraq to put an end to Kurdish guerrilla operations against Turkey, and in the background there is the Turkish threat to intervene in Syria, in order to put an end to the massacre there. All in all, a lot of production for just one week of activity in Ankara.

Now Erdogan is visiting Cairo, in what is regarded, somewhat prematurely, as an historic visit, and the anti-Israel rhetoric is already in full force. Ahead of the visit, there is a choir of adulating commentators who already compare the Turkish leader to the late Egyptian and Arab icon, Gamal Abd Al-Nasser. Nasser, it needs to be mentioned, lost two wars to Israel, and with it the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza. In the last years of his reign, his regime had increasing difficulties providing enough basic food to millions of desperately poor Egyptians. But then, Nasser was the great hero of Pan-Arabism, as he stood up to the West and Israel. When he died, millions of Arabs poured to the streets of the entire ME and mourned the departure of the leader who, so they chanted, restored Arab national pride and honor. Honor is a precious commodity in the political culture of the Middle East, and no other than PM Erdogan acknowledged it the other day, when he declared that no matter what price would Turkey have to pay for its conflict with Israel, national Turkish honor was on the line.

This is the same Erdogan who publicly condemned the Netanyahu government for being arrogant, by preferring Israeli national honor over maintaining good relations with Turkey. So, national honor and pride played a major role in the political career of Nasser, but did not prevent him from leading his nation to defeats and humiliation. It is very doubtful whether this part of the Nasser legacy is what Erdogan wishes to emulate. Above and beyond, Nasser was an Arab leader, and even he failed in the sacred mission of his life, uniting the Arabs and defeating Israel. What an Arab leader failed to do, a non-Arab leader will fail as well. Nor the non-Arab and Shi'ite Ahmadinejad of Iran, neither a Sunni non-Arab Turkish leader.

Even the increasingly anti-Israel rhetoric and actions of Erdogan will not do the trick for him. If at all, a Turkish intervention in Syria could endear Erdogan on Arab leaders, as such an intervention will address two problems, much higher on the political agenda of many leaders in the Middle East, the desire to get rid of the Alawite regime in Syria and the setback to Iran as a result of that. This is an option that the Turks still keep open.

That said, the comparison with Nasser may very well be a dubious compliment to PM Erdogan, perhaps another comparison is in line with the true aspirations of the Turkish leader, that with the great Saladdin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, but alas, a little reminder is in place here. Saladdin was an ethnic Kurd... is there a need to elaborate beyond that?...