Since storming off stage during a live debate on the Israeli military operation in Gaza aired during the Davos Conference in 2009, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has acquired a reputation for anti-Israeli rhetoric.
Following the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, when Israeli naval commandos killed 10 Turkish citizens during a raid against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, his invective steadily escalated. It peaked during a May 2018 speech to the Islamic Cooperation Organisation in Istanbul in which he accused Israel of committing a genocide comparable to the Nazi Holocaust in the occupied Arab territories.
Erdoğan has courted Israel’s foremost enemies to demonstrate his resistance to the tide of Arabs normalising relations with Israel. A lengthy telephone meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in December 2020 to discuss ways to improve bilateral cooperation was intended to deliver a message to Israeli security services, some quarters of which had already begun to view Ankara as a greater threat to Israel than Tehran.
Hamas leaders had been frequent guests of Ankara in 2020. Hamas Political Chief Ismail Haniyeh visited twice, and his predecessor Khaled Mashaal was welcomed with open arms after Khartoum revoked his diplomatic passport.
Having lashed out at the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco for the harm they caused the Palestinian cause by normalising relations with Israel, however, Erdogan went on to approach Israel with the offer of a maritime border agreement creating exclusive Turkish and Israeli economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean.
How might Erdoğan explain this u-turn? Were it not for issues at the leadership level in Israel, “our ties could have been very different,” he told reporters after Friday prayers on 25 December. “It is our heart’s desire that we should carry our relations with Israel to a better place.”
At the same time, a foreign relations adviser to the Turkish presidency confirmed that bilateral ties and diplomatic relations could be restored by March. The hope is that the Israeli elections that month will bring about a prime minister other than Netanyahu, with whom Ankara has the deep differences.
Officials in Israel, on the other hand, are not convinced. It was the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that destroyed relations with Israel, according to a recent Jerusalem Post article on Ankara’s continued “media spin” on “reconciliation” with Israel.
Some analysts believe the Turkish about-face is motivated in by concerns that the forthcoming Joe Biden administration in Washington will be less tolerant of Erdoğan’s autocracy than the Trump administration. With choppy waters ahead in that relationship, Ankara sees cozying up to the Zionist state as the key to mollifying Washington’s heart.
This is especially important to Erdoğan at a time of mounting disgruntlement at home. While he has opposed holding early elections, opposition forces have been clamouring for them and, ultimately, he may have to cave in to pressures. If he and the ruling AKP are to avoid paying too dearly in the polls for the disastrous consequences of autocratic policies, it will be crucial to neutralise the Biden factor. Still fresh in Erdoğan’s mind are Biden’s remarks regarding the need for the US to support the Turkish pro-democracy opposition.
The advice of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu appears to have been instrumental in charting the new policy towards Israel. It was reportedly he who persuaded Erdoğan to back down on the threat to freeze relations with the UAE, convincing him to push for a restoration of relations with Israel as soon as possible. In fact, opposition leaders have long called for such a step, just as they have continually cautioned against the consequences of policies that favour Islamist extremists.
Erdoğan naturally brushed aside such advice, coming as it did from an opposition he preferred muzzled. Now, his attempt to curry favour with people he has frequently likened to Nazis and called “murderers” has presented the opposition with a golden opportunity to showcase his hypocrisy. Many in the opposition don’t believe his ploy will work.
They argue that Israel will not reciprocate what such desperate pleas to bury the hatchet. On 28 December after all The Jerusalem Post called Turkey “one of the most anti-Israel countries in the world in recent years.”
The reconciliation gambit is part and parcel of the Turkish regime’s scramble to end its international isolation. One problem is that almost every time Ankara takes a step in that direction, it shoots itself in the foot.
How, for example, can it ask the EU to create a more positive climate for Turkish-European relations only to send the Oruc Reis research vessel back into Cypriot waters in what was universally seen as a deliberately provocative move? As for relations with Washington, Biden has already hinted at the expected climate.
The US President-elect wrote to the Istanbul-based Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and to Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to thank them for their letters congratulating him on his electoral victory, ignoring Erdoğan.
What all this signifies is that the actions Erdoğan is taking to reverse his losses are too little too late.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.