by Neville Teller
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, openly antagonistic to Israel over many years, has recently been seeking some form of Turco-Israeli reconciliation. His U-turn has had commentators scratching their heads. Is it a genuine change of heart on Erdogan’s part, or a cynical ploy designed to extricate himself from a deteriorating political and economic situation ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2023? Perhaps President Herzog got at the truth of the matter during his visit to Turkey on March 9 and 10. He came away after honeyed words on both sides, and what looks like the start of a new chapter in Turkish-Israel relations
Erdogan’s nominal moves towards improved relations with Israel were actually matched on Israel’s part by a genuine wish for a return to its historic connection with Turkey. Suspicion, though, was natural. The problem had always been Erdogan himself. Could he be taken at his face value? For well over a decade, first as prime minister then as president, he 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 a radical anti-Israel stance. Perhaps that card has lost much of its value in the light of the Abraham Accords.
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Back in March 1949, Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel. Subsequently, 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.
During his early years as prime minister, back in the early 2000s, Erdogan was careful not to promote too radical an agenda too soon. Despite his Islamist views, he made an official visit to Israel in 2005 to be feted by Israel’s then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon. However, it was not long before the previously close relations between Turkey and Israel began to sour. The turning point came in 2009, with the first conflict between Israel and Hamas, which had seized power in the Gaza strip and had been firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel.
In the annual international gathering at Davos that year, Erdogan could not restrain himself. Rounding on Israeli President Shimon Peres, Erdogan called the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip a “crime against humanity” and “barbaric.” Wagging his finger at Peres, he declared: “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and killed children on beaches.” Then, infuriated by the moderator’s refusal to allow him more time in response to Peres’s emotional rebuke, he stalked off the stage.
Between that first indication of Erdogan’s extreme Islamist stance and his intemperate reaction to the announcement by then-US President Donald Trump on December 6, 2017, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, lies the great barren waste of the Mavi Marmara affair – an encounter on the high seas between Israeli soldiers and a Turkish flotilla of six vessels, nominally on a humanitarian mission to Gaza. During the encounter, nine of those on board the Mavi Marama lost their lives. Erdogan manipulated the event into a rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations lasting six years. The affair was finally put to rest in June 2016.
Back in the autumn of 2020 Turkey’s international standing was truly in the doldrums.
The US presidential election was in full swing. Trump may have turned a blind eye to Erdogan’s anti-Kurd land grab in northern Syria, but he drew the line at Turkey, a member of NATO, acquiring the US’s state-of-the-art multi-purpose F-35 fighter aircraft, while already purchasing the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system designed specifically to destroy aircraft like the F-35. Trump had ejected him from the F-35 program and imposed sanctions on Turkey. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden, long opposed to Erdogan’s power-grabbing activities in Syria, would certainly not reverse that.
Erdogan had also attracted the displeasure of the EU by continuing to explore for gas in what is internationally recognized as Cypriot waters. After months of acrimonious exchanges, in December 2020 the EU actually imposed targeted sanctions on Turkey. The UK, now no longer in the EU, sanctioned Turkey on the same grounds.
Turkey’s relations with Egypt had been frozen solid ever since 2013, when Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Erdogan, a life-long adherent of the Brotherhood, expelled Egypt’s ambassador, and Sisi reciprocated.
Egypt and Turkey-backed opposite sides in the war in Libya, while Turkey did its best to subvert Egypt’s developing commercial and maritime partnership with Greece. Relations with Saudi Arabia had been overshadowed for years by the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi’s consulate in Istanbul.
As for Israel, it had long been obvious that Erdogan seized every opportunity to denounce Israel in the most extravagant terms, and to act against it whenever he could. Not the least of his hostile moves was to support Hamas and to provide a base in Istanbul for senior Hamas officials, granting at least twelve of them Turkish citizenship.
In short Turkey, in pursuit of its own political priorities, had fences to mend with, inter alia, the US, the EU, the UK, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
This was the background to the change of Erdogan’s tone on the international scene. Erdogan, or his advisers, must have realized that to achieve his strategic objective of extending and stabilizing Turkey’s power base across the Middle East, a reassessment of tactics was called for. Out of what must have been a root and branch analysis, came a plan to address the problem – Turkey would embark on a charm offensive, involving “reconciliation” or “rebooting” of relationships with one-time enemies, opponents, or unfriendly states.
Israel responded cautiously to his first overtures. The media reported that at a meeting held on December 30, 2020 Israel’s foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi decided to send “quiet feelers” to Ankara to assess how much weight to attach to them. These feelers, meaningful or not, were followed by conciliatory moves by Turkey in other directions – with Germany, the EU, and even Greece and Saudi Arabia.
President Herzog’s visit to Turkey on March 9 and 10, as part of a tour of Mediterranean countries, made him the first Israeli president to do so since 2007.
In an interview on Turkish TV, Erdogan said: “This visit could open a new chapter in relations between Turkey and Israel,” adding that he was “ready to take steps in Israel’s direction in all areas.”
Did he mean what he said? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.