Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been expressing his desire for a reconciliation with Israel ‒ clearly, a ploy designed to achieve wider regional, if not global, objectives. His nominal desire, however, is matched by a genuine wish on Israel’s part for better relations with Turkey. The problem is Erdogan himself. If it wasn’t for him, relations between Israel and Turkey could return to the glory days before he began his climb to power. Unfortunately, for well over a decade Turkey’s leader, first as prime minister then as president, has sought to reverse the policy of Turkish secularization initiated by his renowned predecessor, Kemal Ataturk, and enhance his credentials in the Muslim world by adopting an increasingly anti-Israel stance.
It was not always so. Once. the three non-Arab states in the Middle East ‒ Iran, Turkey and Israel ‒ stood side by side. Back in March 1949 Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel; a year later Iran followed suit.
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Following Turkish recognition, cooperation between Turkey and Israel flourished, particularly in the military, strategic, and diplomatic spheres. Trade and tourism boomed, the Israel Air Force practiced maneuvers in Turkish airspace, and Israeli technicians modernized Turkish combat jets. There were also plans for high-tech cooperation and water sharing.
When Erdoqan became prime minister of Turkey in 2003, he initially maintained a “business as usual” approach, and indeed paid an official visit to Israel in 2005. However his sympathies, shaped by his Muslim Brotherhood background, very quickly resulted in his realigning Turkish policy in favor of an Islamist pro-Arab stance. Relations with Israel deteriorated rapidly, reaching their nadir in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when an attempt, backed by the Turkish government, to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza led to an armed encounter resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish nationals.
In recent years Erdogan has taken every opportunity to hurl insults, condemnations and dire warnings at Israel, He consistently accuses Israel of illegally seizing and occupying Palestinian land, blissfully oblivious to the old saying: “Those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones.” In 1974 Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, seized nearly 40 percent of the island, and set up the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus ‒ an entity recognized by no international organization and no country other than Turkey itself.
Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and does not recognize the government of Cyprus, its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), its maritime border agreements with Egypt, Israel or Lebanon, or the licenses that Cyprus has awarded to foreign energy companies. Driven by a bizarre sort of logic Turkey, having seized and occupied northern Cyprus, is now claiming a share in the vast oil and liquefied natural gas bonanza that has unexpectedly appeared off the coastline of its unrecognized Republic. Having positioned itself outside the international agreements, Turkey has been drilling for some years in waters internationally recognized as being part of Cyprus’s EEZ. Turkey does, of course, have a Mediterranean coastline, but it runs to the north of Cyprus, while the gas reserves are in the so-called Energy Triangle south and east of the island.
Erdogan’s purpose is to disrupt or undermine the pipeline agreement between Greece, Israel and Cyprus. The EU has repeatedly said it considers Turkey’s drilling offshore Cyprus as illegal and, together with the US, has warned Turkey to halt its operations. In November 2019 the EU imposed new sanctions on Turkey, saying they would be lifted as soon as Turkey ceased its unauthorized drilling operations. Erdogan of course did nothing of the kind, but sent a military drone to Cyprus to protect his two ships drilling for oil and gas. The drone was destroyed on its first mission.
Since then Erdogan has made a point of welcoming leaders of Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by many, and according them all the courtesy due to representatives of sovereign states. This is the same Erdogan who labels the Kurdish political parties seeking independence as terrorists, invades their autonomous region and bombs Kurdish citizens.
Despite languishing political relations, commercial dealings between Turkey and Israel have continued to flourish. They achieved more than $5 billion in bilateral trade in 2019, and business and government leaders on both sides predict continuing growth. This is indeed a solid basis on which start a genuine process of improving relations.
In an attempt to get on a good footing with the incoming US president, Joe Biden, Erdogan has just appointed Ufuk Ulutas as ambassador to Israel. Ulutas is an alumnus, among other academic institutions, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Strongly supportive of the Palestinian cause, in his writings, he lays all the problems of the region at Israel’s door. Writing in 2010, he speaks of Turkey and Israel having inherently “divergent regional views” – an opinion clearly at variance with historical fact. Turkish-Israeli relations would continue to fluctuate, he says, “without Israel’s willingness to deal decisively with the key issues of peace in the Middle East, such as the settlements, status of Jerusalem, and Lebanese and Syrian tracks, and most urgently, the improvement of humanitarian conditions in Gaza.”
It has been demonstrated more than once that great peace initiatives can be sponsored by hardline right-wing politicians. Ulutus has been despatched to Israel as part of an obvious political maneuver by Erdogan to lure Israel into a course that would place the Abraham Accords in jeopardy. The wily Turkish leader may have ignored, or discounted, the well-established principle of unintended consequences. Ulutus is no career diplomat. He may begin by speaking peace “with forked tongue” to his Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But how might the exercise end?
Neville Teller is read Modern History at Oxford University. He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years and has published five books on the subject, and blogs at a Mid East Journal. His latest book is “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”.
He was made an MBE – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – in 2006 “for services to broadcasting and to drama.”
Photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan