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Recep Tayyip Netanyahu

Both Netanyahu and Turkey’s head of government, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been in power for too long

Haroon Moghul

Published: Updated:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks more and more like I did when I landed in Istanbul after what felt like a much longer flight than usual, made it through customs, and then found out my luggage had gone missing. I was utterly helpless and had no idea what to do next. Everything Netanyahu knows is behind him - especially ideologically - and what he packed for the journey ahead -intellectually, strategically, rhetorically - has proven entirely useless.
Sure, these days lots of governments have been caught flat-footed. But Israel seems increasingly out of sorts.
You know who else looks like him these days?

Both Netanyahu and Turkey’s head of government, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been in power for too long (Israel’s upper echelons seem to be playing an interminably long and uninteresting game of musical chairs). Both show no signs of going anywhere. Neither has much of a clue, if any, of how to handle the challenges and opportunities around. After Gezi Park, Erdogan began to sound worryingly conspiratorial, while Netanyahu is telling folks he can’t attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral because it’s too expensive.

You couldn’t make this up.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk at New York University during which a number of senior Israeli figures discussed the view of the country from the inside out. A leading Israeli financial official noted that the country had done remarkably well during the global economic crisis, but he rightly predicted that all that growth could very quickly come to naught - if political leadership refused to address the obvious challenges moving forward. These challenges include: Demographics; the Palestinians under occupation; relations between the secular and religious, etc.

The same boat

Turkey is in much the same boat. Despite remarkable economic dynamism, the country’s politics appear increasingly sclerotic. Bluntly, Erdogan has been around too long and is now taking up space precisely when Turkey needs the not-Erdogan. His overreaction to the Gezi Park protesters, and under reaction to their concerns, as well as his administration’s fumbling over Syria, only underlines how he’s run out of ideas.

Turkey is in much the same boat. Despite remarkable economic dynamism, the country’s politics appear increasingly sclerotic

Haroon Moghul

The reason for that should be obvious. Erdogan represents the past. Not in the way Netanyahu does - insofar as Erdogan has realized greater rights for his people, while Netanyahu has made no move to grant equal rights to the people under Israeli occupation. But still, Erdogan must be made to realize that while he was the right man for the job, the job changes. Circumstances change.

Erdogan was the right man for Turkish democracy’s rise against a secular-military establishment; he was tough and uncompromising when that’s what Turkey needed, dedicated to building the broad coalition that was needed to take down the political elite that had too long monopolized Turkish governance. But the deep state has been roundly defeated. Ataturk’s legacy is up for grabs. A leader who knows, apparently, how to pick fights even when he shouldn’t, has ended up targeting the Gulen network—“Hizmet”—that was once his greatest ally.

How is this going to end?

Israel even more desperately needs new leadership which is imaginative, forward-thinking and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to guarantee the country moves forward. Most observers agree the time for a two-state solution has passed, but how Israel comes to terms with this is a question we cannot imagine Netanyahu addressing. When he finds himself in a ditch, he keeps building more settlements, not realizing this is only driving him deeper down. It’s not working.
A world that celebrates Mandela is a world that is no longer playing along.

Even America has openly parted ways with Israel over Iran; in a world that sees an increasingly powerful global south, and limited options for the global north, Netanyahu is the embodiment of anachronism. (Pretending France will give you moral backing is a nice conceit, but France is not America, and is certainly not headed in the direction of superpowerdom). Will Israel get rid of Netanyahu? Can Israel even find a leader who can handle the changing world?

Turkey’s challenge

Turkey’s challenge is less severe, which would make failure even more embarrassing. The region’s biggest democracy, biggest economy, and by far most tolerant political culture—Turkey should have everything going for it. But Erdogan is a major reason Turkey appears to be lost and without direction. He’s bad for his own party; when no one on the top is moving on, no one in the middle can move up.

Q: Where do the AKP’s best and brightest go?

A: Eventually, a new party?

Turkey will stop growing if Erdogan doesn’t move on. And it will be good for him, too, if he does. He should be proud of the legacy he leaves; a Turkey stronger, more democratic, more egalitarian and more influential. He could, in other words, be the ultimate antithesis to Ataturk, capping off one of those once-in-a-century performances by stepping down before he outlasts his welcome.

Or, his immovability could generate a popular movement to unseat him. It might take years, and cost Turkey dearly, but unseating Erdogan might be the next step in the evolution of a more robust, genuine, Turkish democracy. Probably, that’s not the kind of legacy Erdogan thought he would leave behind. The saddest fact of all is; so much of how he’s remembered is in his hands.

How many leaders can say that?

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Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul

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