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What’s Behind Erdoğan’s Sudden Warming Towards Israel?

avatar by Ariel Ben Solomon /


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party (AKP), during a meeting at the Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 28, 2020. Photo: Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Presidential Press Office / Handout via Reuters. – Israel’s long-term adversary, Islamist Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, came out calling for better ties with Israel in what experts say is part of a larger attempt to improve relations with a new US government led by President-elect Joe Biden and break out of its regional isolation.

“We would have liked to bring our ties to a better point,” Erdoğan said on Friday after having bashed Israel’s policy with the Palestinians, reported Reuters.

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, told JNS that “Erdoğan’s half-hearted outreach” to Israel is based on two main premises.

First, Erdoğan “is worried that the incoming Biden administration will be tougher on Turkey than the outgoing Trump administration and hopes that the prospects of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement will earn him some credit with Biden and his team.”

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Second, said Erdemir, Erdoğan wants “to disrupt the growing energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has deepened Ankara’s diplomatic isolation in the region.”

“Erdoğan, however, has a difficult time hiding his deeply ingrained anti-Israeli sentiments and failed to articulate a credible message as part of his tactical outreach so far,” he added. “It is difficult to imagine any mainstream Israeli politician taking Erdoğan’s offer seriously as long as Turkey continues to be the most important Hamas base outside Gaza.”

Turkey was one of the few Middle Eastern countries to establish ties with Israel after its independence in 1948. For decades, it served as one of Israel’s few regional allies until the diplomatic breakthroughs with Egypt and Jordan in the 1980s and ’90s, and more recently, with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

Yet as relations warmed with the Arab world, relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated, especially following the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. While the two countries never completely severed ties over the fiasco, tensions have continued, as have on and off reconciliation attempts over the last few years. Much of the friction has been centered on Turkey’s support for Hamas, the terror organization that controls the Gaza Strip, and its antisemitic rhetoric, while Erdoğan has been deeply critical over Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

The countries expelled each other’s ambassadors in 2018 after clashes at the border with Gaza. In August, Israel accused Turkey of giving passports to members of the terrorist group Hamas in Istanbul.

‘Tried to turn the country into a star power’

Soner Cagaptay, the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS that this represents a major policy shift from Erdoğan.

Cagaptay recalled a prior shift in 2010-11, when the economy was doing well and the Turkish leader had portrayed himself as an internationalist, then broke with that role and distanced himself from the United States in the region during ensuing Arab uprisings.

“Erdoğan then ruptured ties with Israel and turned Turkey away from Europe, and tried to turn the country into a Middle East star power,” said Cagaptay, author of Erdoğan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East. “This did not work out so well, and then in 2016, following the coup attempt against Erdogan, he reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin and started negotiating with him in Syria.”

Russia and Turkey have been supporting opposite sides in Syria’s conflict with Turkey buoying the Islamist-dominated rebels and Russia the Syrian regime.

Cagaptay said Turkey has been left without friends besides Qatar and one of the party’s in the Libyan civil war.

“This is the opposite of what Erdoğan thought he would get when he pivoted towards the region in 2010,” assessed Cagaptay.

A number of Gulf states and Egypt oppose Turkey because it supports Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey is left without friends in the Eastern Mediterranean with a block of countries positioned against it, including Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Egypt cooperating in energy projects, including crucial natural-gas pipelines.

“Erdoğan thinks that Israel is the weakest link in the anti-Turkish alliance, and that it can use Israel to counter the power of Gulf states in the region,” he said.

One possible move towards warmer ties could also be through mutual ally Azerbaijan. The Caucasus region country, which recently concluded a short, yet bloody, war with Armenia, has proposed to act as an intermediary in the process between Jerusalem and Ankara. Both Israel and Turkey supported Azerbaijan during the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

‘Turkey seeks to mend relations with the West’

As with Israel, Turkey’s relations with the United States under the Trump administration have been complicated. While US President Donald Trump has made friendly gestures towards Erdoğan, his administration has been concerned over Turkey’s deepening ties with Russia, especially its purchase of the S-400 missile-defense system, despite Turkey being a member of NATO.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Dec. 14 that the United States is imposing sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for “procuring the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.”

The move includes a ban on all US export licenses and authorizations to Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries.

“The United States made clear to Turkey at the highest levels and on numerous occasions that its purchase of the S-400 system would endanger the security of US military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defense sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defense industry,” stated Pompeo.

The statement went on to say that Turkey moved ahead with Russia despite the availability of NATO-interoperable systems. Turkey was also suspended, “pending removal from the global F-35 Joint Strike Fighter partnership.”

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said that “given the CAATSA and possible EU sanctions, Turkey seeks to mend relations with the West.”

“Turks see Israel as the US branch in the Middle East and thus the quality of the US-Turkey relationship determines the quality of Israeli-Turkish ties,” said Yanarocak. “Turkey would also like the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to support its interests.”

Yanarocak asserted that Erdoğan’s approach to Israel “is a constructive step that was made to influence the incoming Biden administration.”

While the new US government will likely prioritize domestic policy in the months after it takes office, Biden will eventually need to engage Turkey on a series of regional issues from the continued instability in Syria and Iran’s growing influence to regional energy considerations.

However, it’s unlikely that Israel will jettison its new Arab allies after a wave of normalization agreements, bolstered by its relations with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean, in exchange for some recent warm words from Erdoğan.

Israel is likely to continue economic and other cooperation with Turkey but not go as far as its president would like in changing the strategic regional outlook.

As Erdemir put it, “Turkey and Israel have a long list of shared interests, and there is the possibility of establishing win-win relations in economic, diplomatic and security fields. But bilateral relations will remain stunted until Erdoğan, and his brand of Islamism, is voted out of office.”

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