Israel and Turkey Share the Same Pathology: the Meltdown of the Left

Ömer Taşpınar

AFP photo: Jack Guez
Recent elections in Turkey and Israel have proved once again that these two countries have much more in common than one might immediately suppose. At first sight, the elections produced different results for Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 52 percent of the overall vote in Turkey’s local elections but lost in almost every major city, including Ankara and Istanbul. Netanyahu’s victory at the national level was by any measure slim, but it was enough to enable him to form the next government of Israel.
 
On the face of it, dissimilar outcomes. But a closer look soon reveals that the long-term political trend in both countries is heading in the same direction: the left is in meltdown while nationalism is on the rise.
 
The fact that the left has lost political, social and ideological relevance in both Turkey and Israel has the same implications for both of their leaders. Erdogan and Netanyahu will continue moving to the right by exploiting religious nationalism. At a time when the Turkish economy is suffering from stagflation, observers should expect Erdogan to turn even more populist, conservative and nationalist. 
 
And, simply put, there is no other choice open to Netanyahu, either. He knows all too well that his personal freedom, as well as his political survival, depends on him warmly embracing the extreme right. The fact that just before the election he indicated his willingness to annex the entirety of the West Bank speaks for itself. He needs immunity from prosecution and the only way he can get it is to jump into bed with the extreme right. As a consequence of the current state of Israeli politics, a two-state solution is an increasingly remote possibility.
 
Whatever Erdogan’s claims of victory, it could not have happened without the support of an ultra-nationalist electoral partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Without MHP backing, the AKP and Erdogan would not have succeeded in establishing a presidential system in 2017, either. Nor would they have won the presidential and parliamentary elections last summer. And they would not have managed that narrow 52 percent two weeks ago – a feat achieved despite losing in almost all major cities. 
 
However, a similar dynamic applies to the success of the main opposition party. The Republican Peoples Party (CHP) won in places such as Ankara and Istanbul only because of support from its nationalist partner, the Good Party (IYI), which broke away from the ultra-nationalist MHP. In that sense, the CHP’s success in Turkey’s big cities is hardly a victory for the left. The CHP was never a left-wing party and its current coalition with nationalists makes it even less so today. The party had no qualms endorsing the imprisonment of elected Kurdish politicians or nominating ultra-nationalists, among them Mansur Yavas, the mayor-elect in Ankara.
 
Although CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is himself an Alevi Kurd, his decision to take the party rightwards appears to be a strategic move. He claims the left-right divide has become irrelevant and that it was a mistake to adopt policies in favor of income redistribution such as progressive taxation in the past. His embrace of the center-right follows a historical pattern because the CHP’s only brief stint in power was in the 1970s, when the party’s political message was heavily infused with nationalism.
 
In short, today, it is a testament to the power of Turkish nationalism that the only reason why both Erdogan and the CHP can claim partial success in recent local elections is because of the vital support of their two smaller ultra-nationalist partners.
 
While historically the left has never had much of a presence in Turkish politics, the same cannot be said of Israel, which was founded on left-wing Zionist principles. But today, the status of the Israeli left is at an all-time low. After the Labor Party’s humiliating defeat last Tuesday with only 5 percent of the votes, practically nothing remains of that original socialist ideology. Social democrats in Israel appear to have been almost fully co-opted by the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz, the upstart challenger to Netanyahu from the center-right.
 
It is evident now that Netanyahu owes his victory to his courtship of hawkish religious nationalists. He can now form a government in coalition with smaller and more extremist right-wing parties that fully reject a two-state solution. The outlook for future Israeli-Palestinian relations looks very bleak, indeed. 
 
Put all these factors together and the net effect is that the pattern of hostility in Turkish-Israeli relations will not only continue, but will get considerably worse. It is no secret that Erdogan and Netanyahu loathe each other. Hardly a month goes by without the two leaders finding new ways to deride, insult and ridicule each other. But what analysts often miss are the striking similarities behind this confrontational façade.
 
Both work within similar political structures at the national level. Both are Machiavellian and highly skilled at exploiting the religious nationalism of their respective countries. Without a strong left-wing movement to challenge them, the dynamics of constant confrontation and perpetual polarization between these two will reach new levels, and peace, stability, good governance and liberal democracy will continue to suffer in Turkey and Israel. 
 
Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.