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Turkey and Israel: Premature Optimism for Normalization
By Burak Bekdil
Originally Published by the Gatestone Institute.
It has been more than a decade since Turkey and Israel, once strategic partners, broke up badly, with an angry Ankara passionately vowing to isolate Israel internationally. It has also been exactly four years since the two countries decided to give peace a chance once more and appointed ambassadors. They would have to pack up and leave after 17 months of trying to put things back together again.
The decade of animosity between Turkey and Israel, clearly a choice of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has produced exactly the opposite of what Ankara had hoped would happen: The Abraham Accords produced a landmark opportunity for peace in the Middle East. Israel’s former Arab foes have lined up to end hostilities, one after the other, while Turkey, oddly, criticized the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Arab world and Israel, having apparently forgotten that it already had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949.
The United States and seven other countries recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while Turkey campaigned for the “Palestinian capital Jerusalem.” Israel built a geostrategic alliance with Cyprus and Greece while Turkey’s tensions with the Hellenic states escalated exponentially. Turkey’s ties with fellow Muslim countries such as Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates sank from one nadir to another. Eventually, Turkey became the first country in the world that was officially sanctioned by Russia, the U.S. and the European Union. Turkey’s “isolate Israel” hysteria has practically turned Turkey into a monument of self-isolation.
As Erdoğan feels more vulnerable than ever in view of his country’s perilous journey, there has been speculation that Turkey and Israel may actually be normalizing their ties. According to Selin Nasi, an analyst:
“Turkish-American relations are expected to enter a tough period, at least in the short run, considering the Biden administration’s sensitivity toward issues of democracy and human rights… Given the anti-Turkish opinion prevalent in the US Congress, Turkey might be hoping that Israel can neutralize the opposition and help Turkey win Washington’s ear again.”
Mesut Caşin, foreign policy adviser to Erdoğan, told Voice of America:
“If Israel comes one step, Turkey maybe can come two steps… If we see a green light, Turkey will open the embassy again and return our ambassador. Maybe in March, we can restore full diplomatic relations again. Why not … Establishing peace and security is very important to Israel and Turkey.”
Axios reported on December 23 that Azerbaijan proposed to mediate between Turkey and Israel to improve relations. The report said that aides to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev had told Israeli officials that Erdoğan was in favor of improving ties. According to Axios, the aides claimed that “Erdoğan was not anti-Israel, but had merely been under the influence of advisers who no longer hold sway.”
Finally Erdoğan spoke on the subject, saying that he wished to improve ties with Israel:
“Our relations with Israel on intelligence have not ceased anyway, they are still continuing,” Erdogan said during a press conference. “We have some difficulties with the people at the top.”
He stressed that Ankara “cannot accept the attitude of Israel towards the Palestinian lands,” and that “we differ from Israel in terms of our understanding of both justice and the territorial integrity of countries.”
This picture only reflects a premature optimism for a pragmatic, transactional Turkish-Israeli reset.
Erdoğan comes from the ranks of political Islam, which is “more Palestinian than the Palestinians,” and is ideologically pro-Hamas and pro-Muslim Brotherhood. He once said that Zionism was a crime against humanity. He has, countless times, called Israel a “state of terror.”
It would be childish to believe that the man whose political formation was based on a militant expanse of anti-Zionism as raison d’être was not anti-Israeli, but had merely been under the influence of advisors who no longer hold sway. Erdoğan is anti-Israeli today as he was 40, 30, 20 and 10 years ago.
Only a year ago, The Telegraph reported that Turkey was turning a “blind eye” to Hamas members planning attacks on Israel from the safety of Turkey, and claimed that operatives in Istanbul were seeking suicide-bombing recruits by offering to pay their families around $20,000 for carrying out attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. In August, The Telegraph revealed that Ankara had granted citizenship and passports to “senior operatives of a Hamas terrorist cell,” including Zacharia Najib, “the senior Hamas operative who oversaw a plot to assassinate the [then] mayor of Jerusalem, as well as other Israeli public figures.” Also in August, Erdoğan met in Istanbul with Hamas’s senior military leader, Saleh al-Arouri, and senior political leader, Ismail Haniyeh.
These are not blurred memories from distant past. They are not coincidental, either. They follow an ideological pattern of hostility along religious lines. They do not make Erdoğan a reliable partner for peace.
As a matter of fact, none of the reasons why Erdoğan preferred to steer otherwise friendly relations between Turkey and Israel into where they stand today has disappeared. Without their disappearing for good, a reset will remain but a sweet wish.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s leading journalists, was recently fired from the country’s most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.