Boxed-in Turkey tries to rekindle ties, but Israel can now play hard to get

Erdogan is eager to turn the page, as old antagonist Biden assumes office, but Jerusalem, sitting pretty with gas alliances and new Arab friends, will have some demands

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul on August 5, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul on August 5, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

For over a decade, Turkey has been one of Israel’s most bitter critics on the international stage. Anti-Israel rhetoric from top officials, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, verged on the apoplectic, and Ankara also took actions that angered officials in Jerusalem, most notably providing support for the Hamas terror group.

In recent weeks though, Erdogan has struck a noticeably different tone toward Israel, expressing his interest in improving ties with Turkey’s erstwhile ally.

“Our heart desires that we can move our relations with them to a better point,” he said in December.

The sea change is being driven by global and regional shifts that have pushed Ankara’s back against the wall: isolated from Europe and many Arab states, it is facing a potentially unfriendly White House, while its economy continues to get buffeted by the pandemic.

Opening a new chapter with Israel could help bring it back in the West’s good graces and restore a fruitful military relationship.

But Israel’s place in the region has also changed, driving up the price of friendship. Unlike in 2016, the last time the countries reached a detente, Israel now enjoys enhanced ties with countries in the eastern Mediterranean and an unprecedented wave of normalization agreements with Arab states.

“What Turkey has yet to figure out is that it is no longer an indispensable partner for Israel,” said Selin Nasi, a Turkish international relations scholar, currently based in London.

Going cold Turkey

Turkey’s on-again, off-again relationship with Israel goes back to the founding of the Jewish state.

Turkey aligned itself firmly with the West against the Soviet Union after World War II, including joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but voted against the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, which would have created a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.

Then, once it became convinced of Israel’s pro-Western orientation, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority nation to recognize the new State of Israel in 1949.

After initial optimism and alignment of interests, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Disagreements with the US over Cyprus, which it invaded in 1974, led Turkey to adopt a more balanced foreign policy, improving ties with the USSR and its Arab allies during the 1960s and 1970s. Turkey even supported the infamous 1975 “Zionism is a form of racism” UN resolution.

There were moves toward reconciliation with Israel in 1986, but Turkey regularly criticized the Jewish state as a human rights violator during the first Intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The breakthrough came with the start of the Madrid peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which led to Turkey and Israel returning their ambassadors in 1992. Trade and tourism flourished, and the sides signed agreements in 1994 that marked the beginning of intensive security cooperation. Iranian fundamentalism and Syria’s support for Kurdish PKK fighters alarmed Ankara, and strategic ties with Israel were seen as crucial by the secular establishment, especially the military.

Defense ties were further enhanced in 1997 in the wake of the first visit to Israel by the Turkish military chief of staff: Turkish warships made a port of call in Haifa that year and regular naval exercises began. Israeli pilots trained in Turkey and likely took off from Turkish bases to conduct reconnaissance missions against Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Turkish sailors on the frigate Fatih watch the city of Haifa, June 17, 1997. (AP/Anatolia News Agency/Sukru/File)

The positive ties began to unravel when Erdogan’s populist Justice and Development Party, also known as the AKP, came to power in 2002. As prime minister, he sought to reorient Turkish policy away from a security-based posture against traditional threats like Syria — which had driven Israel and Turkey closer together — to one aimed at positive relations with its other neighbors. While the Second Intifada raged, Erdogan turned down invitations to meet with senior Israeli officials, but still tried to play a constructive role as a mediator in covert Israel-Syria peace talks. And Turkey continued to buy arms from Israel, which in turn sold more arms to Turkey than to anywhere but India between 2000 and 2010.

Israeli tanks at the staging ground outside Gaza on December 29, 2008, the third day of Operation Cast Lead (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)
Israeli tanks at a staging ground outside Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, December 29, 2008. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90/File)

In late 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza only two days after a meeting between Erdogan and then-prime minister Ehud Olmert in Ankara. Olmert declined to inform his counterpart of the impending operation, and the proximity of the meeting to the offensive was seen as embarrassing to Erdogan, who feared being seen as complicit, and harmful to Turkey’s improved ties with the Arab world.

Erdogan led the chorus of intense international criticism of Israel for its Gaza policies, including a very public verbal spat with then-president Shimon Peres during a panel in Davos in January 2009. “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” declared Erdogan before storming off-stage.

The wheels came off in May 2010, when Israeli naval commandoes opened fire, after being attacked, as they intercepted a flotilla to Gaza; 10 Turkish activists on the flagship Mavi Marmara died in the melee. Ankara withdrew its ambassador and expelled Israel’s envoy, as ties reached their nadir.

Activists on the 'Mavi Marmara' preparing to attack IDF soldiers (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Activists on the ‘Mavi Marmara,’ preparing to attack IDF soldiers. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

There was moderate improvement in 2013, after US president Barack Obama orchestrated a phone call between Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan, in which the Israeli PM offered a carefully worded apology. But ongoing Turkish criticism over Israel’s blockade of Gaza and military actions against Hamas kept the two sides at odds.

Amidst shared concerns over Iranian influence in Syria and Turkish interest in Israeli natural gas, Ankara and Jerusalem formally resolved their differences in June 2016. Full diplomatic relations were restored, among other positive gestures like Turkish help during wildfires in Israel that year.

The reconciliation did not last, however. Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked Israel’s envoy to leave in May 2018, in the wake of violent protests on the Israel-Gaza border, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed. Turkish and Israeli leaders criticized each other bitterly, with Erdogan calling Israel a “child-murderer” country and Netanyahu accusing Erdogan of killing Kurdish civilians.

Through the ups and downs, though, the sides never completely broke off ties, and while tourism has suffered, the countries have maintained trade and quiet diplomatic activity.

Since May, a new rapprochement process has been underway. That month, an El Al plane landed in Turkey for the first time in a decade, and reports emerged that Turkey would return its ambassador to Tel Aviv.

In his December remarks hoping for improved ties, Erdogan stressed that the intelligence relationship between the sides had never ceased. Unlike other rhetoric of his on Israel, much of which is seen as populist and meant for domestic consumption only, his comments now are being taken seriously.

“Erdogan’s statement is meaningful,” explained Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “It is similar to his statement before the 2016 normalization agreement. So it certainly is a testament to serious intentions on the Turkish side.”

Jiltin’ Joe

There are several pressing reasons for Turkey to mend its ties with Israel.

First and foremost is the history of personal acrimony between Erdogan and incoming US President Joe Biden.

For most of US president Donald Trump’s term, the president’s chemistry with Erdogan was enough to maintain reasonably constructive US-Turkey relations in the face of conflicting regional interests and anti-Erdogan sentiment in Congress. Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system proved more than the personal relationship could bear, so the Trump administration evicted Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet project, and finally sanctioned its fellow NATO member in December 2020.

Military vehicles and equipment, parts of the S-400 air defense systems, are unloaded from a Russian transport aircraft, at Murted military airport in Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. (Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool)

With Biden, there is no love lost.

In 2014, then-vice president Biden had to apologize to Erdogan, after he stated in a speech that Erdogan’s policies had contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

In the Turkish press, Biden was described as one of the perpetrators of the 2016 attempted military coup against Erdogan, according to Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. The Obama administration also refused a Turkish request following the coup to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Erdogan blames for instigating it.

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, poses for photographers with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, prior to a meeting at Yildiz Mabeyn Palace in Istanbul on January 23, 2016. (Kayhan Ozer/ Presidential Press Service, Pool via AP/File)

More recently, as a presidential candidate in 2020, Biden described Erdogan as an “autocrat” in The New York Times and said that the US should “make it clear that we support opposition leadership.”

“He has to pay a price,” said Biden, stressing that the US should enable opposition figures to “be able to take on and defeat Erdogan.”

Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Biden’s statements were “based on pure ignorance, arrogance, and hypocrisy.”

“The days of ordering Turkey around are over,” Kalin wrote at the time, adding ominously, “But if you still think you can try, be our guest. You will pay the price.”

Erdogan was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his win. According to reports, Biden has yet to accept Erdogan’s offer to speak on the phone.

“The current shift in Turkish foreign policy derives from the fact that there is new leadership in Washington,” said Cohen.

“Erdogan is trying to mend the fences with Joe Biden. In order to do that, he launched a new rapprochement not only with the United States, but also with the United States’ allies, meaning Israel and the European Union.”

Rivals all around

Beyond the US, Turkey finds itself increasingly isolated, and could face a pro-Western regional rivalry hardening into a determined anti-Turkish bloc, amid pushback over aggressive gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean and military offensives.

For the better part of a decade, Turkey has been engaged in a bitter rivalry with Egypt that began when Erdogan backed the Muslim Brotherhood. after the group was ousted from power in Cairo.

The rivalry between the Sunni Muslim powers has metastasized into other areas and split the Middle East, with Turkey and Qatar leading a pro-Islamist faction, and Egypt siding with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a pro-Western camp.

In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, which accuse Turkey of illegally drilling for natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. Together with Israel, the countries formed the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo, and they have conducted joint military exercises.

Turkey’s drilling ship, Fatih, sails through the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea in Istanbul, May 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Ankara also faces worsening ties with Europe. Erdogan, who has stoked Islamist sentiment, infuriated French and EU officials by stating that President Emmanuel Macron needs “mental treatment,” for condemning the beheading of a teacher who showed a picture of the prophet Muhammed.

Refugees have also been an ongoing sticking point, with Erdogan threatening to let refugees across the border into Greece if the EU does not keep its end of a 2016 refugee deal. EU leaders have also criticized Turkey for human rights abuses.

Turkish military interventions are another cause for alarm in Europe. Members of the European Parliament called for sanctions against Turkey over its October 2019 military operation in northern Syria. France, which has emerged as a leader of the European anti-Turkish camp, has pushed EU sanctions on Turkey for its military involvement in the Libya civil war, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.

A Turkish military convoy moves in Idlib province, Syria, on February 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)

Five of Turkey’s top 10 trading partners are in the EU and the threat of sanctions, backed by Cyprus and Greece, could not come at a worse time, with the country’s economy already banged up by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Turkish lira had been in decline while inflation rose even before COVID-19 hit. Now these problems had taken on new dimensions: food prices skyrocketed as the lira lost 30 percent against the dollar.

Erdogan has managed to reverse some of these trends, but the government will have to continue to invest significant sums into health care and social services to deal with the coronavirus and its aftereffects.

Sustained economic growth was the key to Erdogan’s popularity among the Turkish working class as prime minister. and he may be feeling pressure to seek a new posture on the international stage to get the economy back on track.

A hug from Israel won’t come cheap

In the face of increasing isolation and economic challenges, Turkey has made a decision to chart a new course in its foreign policy, including overtures to Greece and the EU.

Restoring ties with Israel is a key part of Turkey’s new foreign policy direction.

“In Turkey’s eyes, Israel is considered the representative of the US administration in the Middle East,” said Cohen.

A more constructive relationship with Israel would help dampen anti-Erdogan sentiment on Capitol Hill and in the Biden administration, in Turkey’s calculation.

And there is certainly potential for both sides to resolve their differences without stepping on too many of Ankara’s toes.

“If you look at the outcomes, Ankara’s military presence in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan does not undermine either Israeli or American interests,” pointed out Nasi.

A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is seen shortly after its landing at an airport in Gecitkala, known as Lefkoniko in Greek, in Cyprus on December 16, 2019. (DHA via AP)

Israel also has positive reasons to turn the page with Turkey. Syria, Iraq, and Iran all border Turkey, and renewed defense ties with Ankara would enhance Israeli military and intelligence activities in the region.

“Turkey as a NATO member and a close ally of the United States is a strategic asset for Israel, and is good for national security,” stressed Cohen.

But Turkey is discovering that Israel is not jumping at the opportunity to restore close ties.

Israel’s burgeoning diplomatic and security relationship with Arab states has strengthened Israel’s position in the region. Israel has other avenues to engage diplomatically with the Muslim world, has new trade partners, and can now fly over Arab airspace to go east instead of being forced to rely on Turkey’s.

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the possibility of improved ties, but it is likely that Israel will have three main demands in talks with Turkey.

Protesters chant slogans as they wave Hamas, Turkish and Palestinian flags outside the residence of the Israeli ambassador in Ankara on May 14, 2018, during a demonstration against the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. (AFP Photo/Adem Altan)

The first is an old demand: Turkey must cease allowing Hamas to plan military activities from its soil. Turkey agreed to forbid the terror group from carrying out any non-political activity in 2016, but in 2019, Israeli sources told The Telegraph that Turkey is allowing Hamas members to plan attacks from there. Last year, an Israeli diplomat said Erdogan had granted citizenship to 12 Hamas members.

Israel will also want Turkey to be more transparent about its activities in East Jerusalem, according to Lindenstrauss. With the cooperation of Muslim Brotherhood groups in the city, Turkey is actively asserting itself in Arab neighborhoods and on the Temple Mount by initiating and funding cultural and political activities. Jordan and other Arab countries have reportedly asked Israel to do more to curb growing Turkish influence in Jerusalem.

Finally, Israel will also likely demand Erdogan and Turkish officials tone down their harsh anti-Israel rhetoric, particularly around Israeli policies in Gaza.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds up a map of Israel since 1947 showing what he says are expanding Israeli borders while speaking to the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 24, 2019, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Since relations were not officially downgraded in 2018, Lindenstrauss pointed out, Turkey can opt to return its ambassador unilaterally, leaving Israel to decide when or whether to respond in kind.

Despite Israel’s cautious response thus far to Turkish statements, they would welcome a return to normalcy if they believed it was sincere. “If all of these terms were met by the Turkish administration, every official in Jerusalem would rejoice and embrace such a genuine normalization,” argued Cohen.

“Israel still wants to hug Turkey, but is not running into its arms.”

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