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June 25, 2018 4:23 pm

Experts: Future of Israel-Turkey Ties Remains Uncertain Following Erdogan’s Electoral Victory; Israel Should Not Recognize Armenian Genocide

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the presidential palace in Ankara. Photo: Reuters / Kayhan Ozer.

It is uncertain what, if any, effect Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral victory this past weekend will have on Ankara-Jerusalem ties, an Israeli expert on relations between the two nations has told The Algemeiner.

The 64-year-old Erdogan coasted to victory in the elections, garnering over 50 percent of the vote in the presidential race, despite a strong effort by his opponents. He has been a vehement critic of Israel and an advocate of the Palestinian cause, which he uses to whip up support among Turkish voters.

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies (INS) told The Algemeiner on Monday that while Israel played a role in the election, it was not a decisive one, and there was little indication of what Erdogan’s next moves would be regarding his country’s ties with the Jewish state.

“The issues of Jerusalem and Gaza, while conducive to Erdogan’s campaign were not a critical factor,” she said. “The opposition was in concurrence with his position on these issues and even challenged him to adopt a tougher approach to Israel. The question is broader in my view — what approach will Erdogan adopt after the elections both inward and outward — combative or more conciliatory? From the little we can see already, it seems he will remain a tough critic of the West and, partially as a byproduct, also of Israel.”

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Asked whether Israel’s relationship with Turkey would suffer as a result of Erdogan’s renewed mandate, Lindenstrauss replied, “While there has not been a formal downgrading of relations in the mid-May 2018 crisis, the situation at present is that there is no Israeli or Turkish ambassador or consul general in the respective countries. It should also be remembered that while Turkey withdrew both its ambassadors in Israel and in the United States following the US embassy move to Jerusalem, in late May the Turkish ambassador did return to Washington and this had not been the case regarding the Turkish ambassador to Israel. Hence the issue of when the diplomatic representation will return to normal is still unclear.”

As to Israel’s economic relations with Turkey, she noted, “There has been no formal change. There have been voices during the election campaign (mostly among the opposition) to boycott buying products from Israel, but most of the imports from Israel to Turkey are anyhow chemicals/refined oil that the ordinary customer is not in a position to boycott. The atmosphere between the states is however negative for anyone contemplating new investments in the respective country.”

On the question of whether Erdogan might end relations with Israel altogether, perhaps in the context of future Gaza war, Lindenstrauss posited, “I do believe that the fate of the relations themselves, not just the level of diplomatic representation, is at stake. Still, it is likely that Erdogan will truly hesitate to break the relations altogether, since if Turkey aspires to continue to be a leading power in the Middle East there are clear advantages of keeping communication channels with Israel, as well as a need to maintain access to the West Bank and Gaza. Regarding Gaza, especially due to the tensions between Turkey and Egypt — Turkey’s only viable route is through Israel.”

Most importantly, she pointed out, it is necessary to understand that Erdogan is a true believer in his anti-Israel rhetoric, even though it also works to his advantage politically.

“Erdogan has been quite consistent on the issue of Jerusalem and Gaza,” she said. “It has benefits both in the domestic audience and in the Muslim world for him, but he also genuinely believes he should confront Israel on these issues. The fact that he both believes in this cause and it has dividends for him reinforces his stance.”

Assistant Professor at SUNY Maritime College and Turkey expert Mark Meirowitz expressed concern over the possible Israeli reaction to Erdogan’s reelection, in particular, a renewed push in the Knesset to recognize the Armenian genocide. “I believe that the Israeli Knesset’s endorsement of the concept of the Armenian genocide (supported by some members of the Knesset and opposed by the Israeli government) could lead to a complete break in relations and would be an extremely impolitic move,” he told The Algemeiner.

Meirowitz also does not see Israel as the main issue in Erdogan’s campaign, saying, “I believe that this electoral victory will not be seen as a vindication of President Erdogan’s or the Turkish government’s positions vis-a-vis Israel. The main issues in the electoral campaign had little or nothing to do with Israel and focused on the restructuring of the political process through the enhanced powers of the Presidency approved by the referendum. … I recognize that the Israel issue is very important but will likely not, following the elections, occupy the highest priority. The main concerns include the conflict in Syria, including the issue of the Syrian Kurds; the Turkey-US relationship, and the Turkish economy. The problems with the Turkish economy must be dealt with immediately to avoid a significant future economic downturn for Turkey.”

He also expressed cautious optimism regarding Israel-Turkey relations.

“I am hoping that the election results will improve the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Turkey, and lead to the return of ambassadors,” he said. “On the economic side, even in difficult times following the Mavi Marmara incident, trade was steady, and even increased, between Turkey and Israel. Turkish Airlines is still a major carrier to Israel. With the ascendancy of Iran and the debacle in Syria, Turkey and Israel must work together to address regional issues. I think that the victory by President Erdogan and the AKP in Parliament might provide stability and clarity on the various issues challenging Turkey. The election results certainly provide President Erdogan and the AKP flexibility to determine the direction of policy, including in relation to Israel.”

“After the reinstatement of relations about six years following the Mavi Marmara incident,” he added, “there have been some bumps — including serious ruptures — but relations have not been severed. It is certainly possible that events in Israel and Gaza, etc. could again stimulate problems in the relationship, but Erdogan having assumed the enhanced presidency and AKP’s having taken control of the Parliament (with AKP’s coalition partner, the MHP), there doesn’t seem to be any immediate incentive for Turkey to further exacerbate the relationship between Turkey and Israel. I also see no advantage or benefit to Israel in collapsing its relationship with Turkey — instead, Turkey and Israel must work hard toward the goal of putting relations back on track and returning ambassadors.”

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