With Erdogan on cusp of keeping power, Israel has reason to root for former foe

The longtime leader is seen as committed to the ongoing rapprochement with Jerusalem, while some fear longshot Kilicdaroglu could push Israel away by reorienting Ankara to the West

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A person walks past billboards of Turkish President and People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan a day after the presidential election day, in Istanbul, Turkey, May 15, 2023. (Emrah Gurel/AP)
A person walks past billboards of Turkish President and People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan a day after the presidential election day, in Istanbul, Turkey, May 15, 2023. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have weathered what is likely the most serious challenge to his continued rule yet. Though the Turkish economy is in tatters, and his policies rendered the massive February earthquakes even more deadly, his People’s Alliance protected its parliamentary majority, and he appears poised to win a run-off election on May 28.

Though Erdogan is no great friend of Israel, and has been one of the Jewish state’s most vocal critics, there is one big reason why Jerusalem may be quietly breathing a sigh of relief at the Islamist’s survival.

“After the elections, normalization will be more secure than ever,” insisted Batuhan Takis, managing editor at the Turkish daily Daily Sabah. “We can see he’s very dedicated to furthering this normalization.”

Should Erdogan indeed hang on to power, Israel will no longer have to worry about the rapprochement brewing between the erstwhile rivals possibly getting derailed by a transition of power.

While longshot challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu has little incentive to drastically change Ankara’s recent cooperative stance toward the Jewish state, there are also concerns that his foreign policy priorities could unintentionally leave Israel out in the cold.

“We will see more positive ties with the United States, more positive ties with the EU,” said Takis, “but not with the Middle East.”

Kingmaker with 5%

Ahead of the May 14 vote, Erdogan trailed in polls to pro-Western bureaucrat Kilicdaroglu, and many thought his reign could be coming to an end after 20 years in power.

But those decades in power also mean that the president has become an inevitable fixture of Turkey’s political scene to many. Analysts reached by The Times of Israel following the inconclusive vote this week all said they had expected Erdogan to be ahead at the end of the first round, and be poised to triumph.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) speaks at the party’s headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday, May 14, 2023. (AP)

“I’m not surprised by the results,” said Yusuf Erim, editor at large for Turkish network TRT World. “But there are details that surprised me.”

Among the surprising results was candidate Sinan Ogan capturing 5% of the vote as he rode a nationalist wave. Kept out of the runoff, he has instead taken on the role of kingmaker, with his voters likely to have an outsized impact on whether Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu come out on top.

Ogan had campaigned on an anti-migrant platform, snapping up the votes of nationalists who also oppose the possibility of Kurdish autonomy in the east, are unhappy with Western moves to counter Ankara in its search for natural gas in the Mediterranean, and want to see Turkey move ahead with its civilian nuclear projects.

Sinan Ogan, Turkish academician and presidential candidate of the ATA (Ataturk) nationalist alliance speaks to the press after a meeting with the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP, in Ankara, on April 12, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

He has not said which candidate he will endorse, if any, but appeared to hint at his thought process when he told the press, “Those who do not distance themselves from terrorism should not come to us.”

The 55-year-old was referring to Kurdish parties that he sees as linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is listed as a terror group by the US, EU, and Turkey.

Both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are allied with Kurdish parties accused of links to extremism. But whereas Erdogan can likely afford to jettison his associations with Kurdish Islamist party Huda Par, Kilicdaroglu counts the PKK-linked Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as a main coalition ally and needs their support to have a shot at winning.

A woman cries atop the rubble of her collapsed house in Yaylakonak village in Adiyaman district, a Kurdish Alevi community village where 108 people died and 170 houses collapsed after an earthquake struck parts of Turkey and Syria, February 19, 2023. (Bulent Kilic / AFP)

With Ogan’s conservative voters widely believed to lean heavily toward Erdogan’s camp, Kilicdaroglu’s only real hope of making gains in round two is seemingly pinned on pro-government turnout falling as Erdogan supporters become complacent. But his backers would still need to seize the rare chance at unseating the strongman and show up to the polls en masse.

It’s a long shot. “Opposition voters are demoralized,” said Erim. “They were shocked by the results of the election.”

Looking West, away from Israel

For Israel, it’s just as well that Erdogan remains in power. Despite his repressive policies, disastrous fiscal record, and alleged participation in endemic corruption, Erdogan has won praise for his navigation of international politics.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, February 14, 2023 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkiye)

“We have problems in the economy, we have problems with the earthquake,” said Turkish journalist Meryem Ilayda Atlas. “Foreign policy is the most successful part.”

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Erdogan adopted a pugnacious posture in the region, picking fights with Egypt, the UAE, Greece, France, and Israel, among others. But as the pro-Islamist forces backed by Ankara waned, Erdogan faced increasing isolation and severe economic challenges. In recent years, he has been charting a new course, including overtures to Egypt, Gulf states, and the EU.

Israel was part of this trend. After more than two years of fitful progress, Israel and Turkey finally agreed in August to restore full diplomatic relations, four years after Ankara humiliated Israel’s envoy on his way out of the country.

Israel’s ambassador to Turkey Irit Lillian (L) presents her letter of credence to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, December 27, 2022 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)

On the other hand, if Kilicdaroglu were to pull out a surprise victory, his pro-Western stance won’t necessarily be advantageous to Israel.

Many elements in Kilicdaroglu’s six-party alliance oppose improved ties with the Arab world, preferring to orient Turkey toward the secular West rather than an Arab world they see as backward and inferior.

“While not directed at Israel, negative ties with Middle Eastern countries will affect Israel ties as well,” Takis explained.

As Israel works to deepen cooperation with Gulf states by participating in regional initiatives like the Negev Forum and I2U2, a Kilicdaroglu-led Turkey could see such alliances as rival power centers. His ability to act on those convictions, however, will be limited by Turkey’s parliament, which will be ruled by the Erdogan-allied bloc that won a majority on May 14.

“The government will be very busy with its own political deadlock,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “I don’t see them taking radical decisions vis-a-vis Israel.”

Criticism of Israel from a secularist-nationalist government is likely to sound more like Swedish or French statements about Palestinians and Jerusalem, and less like Erdogan’s vicious broadsides about Israeli terrorism and baby killing.

Erdogan has since shelved that type of rhetoric as he has pursued healthy ties with Israel. His reaction to recent fighting in Gaza is further evidence that he will stay the course on the strategic decision.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh during a January 2012 meeting in Istanbul. (Mohammed al-Ostaz/Flash90)

During past Gaza violence, he blasted Israel using antisemitic imagery and comparisons to Nazis. “There is no difference between the atrocity faced by the Jewish people in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality that our Gaza brothers are subjected to,” he said in the wake of deadly border clashes in 2018.

However, Erdogan remained quiet during the five days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad earlier this month, even though verbal attacks on Israel could have endeared him to some of his base ahead of the crucial election.

Israel’s emergency aid provided after the February earthquakes also did much to improve its image in the country, said Erim.

But that doesn’t mean it will be all smooth sailing for Israel during Erdogan’s assumed next five years in office. There remain fundamental disagreements over the Palestinian issue, and Hamas continues to operate in Turkey.

Israel can expect the harshest critics to come not from the president’s office, but from his allies in parliament.

File: Israelis on board a flight to Turkey during the Passover holiday, April 12, 2009. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

“I do not foresee any deterioration, though there will be more radical Islamists in parliament,” said Cohen, pointing to the anti-Zionist New Welfare Party in the Erdogan coalition.

That will not get in the way of expanding business and tourism between the two regional powers.

With economic recovery Erdogan’s pressing concern, he is not about to risk losing any of the $6 billion-plus of annual exports to Israel. Nor will he drive away the nearly 1 million Israeli tourists that come every year, with Ukrainians and Russians showing up in reduced numbers because of the ongoing war.

“I don’t see any difference in the normalization after elections,” said Erim. “If anything, they’ll have much easier conditions moving forward.”

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