Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the head of a rival political party for referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “the Israeli version of Erdogan.”
Erdogan, who has a long record of antisemitic remarks and recently called for the creation of a multinational Muslim army to attack Israel, called Iyi Party leader Meral Akşener’s comments “immoral” and “shameless” prior to new surfacing that he is demanding 250,000 lira – nearly $30,000 – from Akşener for her remarks, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper. Hurriyet‘s report did not specify what Erodgan is suing for, but “insulting the president” is a crime in Turkey punishable by both civil litigation and jail time. Erdogan has taken to using the legal provision with increasing frequency in the past decade against political opponents, both professional politicians and private citizens expressing themselves openly.
Akşener, whose party proposes to offer the fervent Turkish nationalism that Erdogan represents while harnessing mounting discontent against the president for the many power grabs during his tenure, made the comparison derisively, accusing both Erdogan and Netanyahu of killing children to remain in power.
“Erdogan’s Israel version, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not hesitate to target the lives of civilians and children to scupper his political rivals and protect his seat,” Akşener said in remarks to the Turkish Parliament on Tuesday. The Iyi Party leader accused Netanyahu of the alleged killings as part of her opposition to Israel’s two-week campaign against the terrorist organization Hamas, which fired thousands of rockets at civilian centers in Israel in a week. The Israeli government responded with a military campaign against Hamas terrorist tunnels, offices, and other sites, forewarning civilians in the area to vacate before attacking. The Israeli government announced a ceasefire on Friday, preceded by Palestinian riots continuing at al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday.
Akşener did not clarify which “lives of civilians and children” Netanyahu’s campaign targeted or how the campaign protected his extended term as prime minister. She also did not elaborate on how she would apply the accusation to Erdogan, though under his Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey has faced widespread allegations of ethnic cleansing of Kurdish groups and Arab Christians in southern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Erdogan himself has admitted to plotting a repopulation of Kurdish areas in Syria by Arab Muslims, drawing condemnation from native Kurds as well as the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which opposes any Turkish presence in the country. Erdogan claimed in 2016 that Turkish troops had invaded Syria to “end the rule of the tyrant Assad” and “not any other reason.”
Erdogan personally expressed outrage with Akşener’s remarks on Wednesday.
“I have not met Netanyahu,” Erdogan insisted. “Netanyahu has never been and will never be our friend.”
“We have politicians who have become so immoral that they shamelessly equate me with Netanyahu,” he added, mocking his critics for allegedly being unable to “point to Palestine on a map.”
Erdogan has sued thousands of people for “insulting the president” and allowed criminal procedures against them. Between 2014 and 2020, nearly 1,000 people charged with the crime of “insulting the president” in Turkey were children. While most instances featured clear cases of disparaging remarks against Erdogan, some have raised questions of what public commentary counts as “insulting.” In 2015, a Turkish doctor, Bilgin Ciftci, was charged with “insulting the president” for posting a meme online that compared Erdogan to the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Defense attorneys argued that comparisons to Gollum were not inherently offensive, relying on several “expert” witnesses, including a film expert, to explain the character to the court. The meme in question came accompanied with no text, leaving the meaning ambiguous.
Erdogan continued his invective against Israel on Friday, despite the ceasefire, referring to the country as a “terror state” for its proportional response to attacks by jihadist organizations. The tirade, which also contained a threat that Turkey would “rise” as an empire once again, followed similar insults throughout the week. On Thursday, for example, “Erdogan said those supporting Israeli actions in Jerusalem and Gaza would go down in history as being complicit in child murder and crimes against humanity,” according to the state-run Turkish Anadolu news agency.
The direct quote from Erdogan specifically attacked Jewish people, not the state of Israel.
“They are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They only are satisfied by sucking their blood,” the Turkish president said, referencing a longstanding antisemitic trope. Erdogan has a long history of other antisemitic remarks and was described in a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks as a “fundamentalist” who “hates [Jews] religiously.”
This week’s comment prompted condemnation from the U.S. State Department.
“The United States strongly condemns President Erdogan’s recent antisemitic comments regarding the Jewish people and finds them reprehensible,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday, to which Erdogan’s communications director replied, “speaking about an Israeli Prime Minister who expressed his enjoyment of killing Muslims is not anti-Semitism.”
Erdogan’s forceful attempts to insert himself in the current conflict in Israel follows years of eroding popularity, even among Turkish Islamists, and the rise of new political forces like the Iyi Party. A poll released on Friday by the research firm Metropoll found that a presidential election held today would result in a loss for Erdogan against Akşener by four percentage points. Two other candidates – Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş, also of the CHP – would win by far greater margins against Erdogan. Erdogan is set to run for reelection in 2023.