Turkey’s Erdogan Looking To Mend Ties With Israel, but Trust Remains an Issue
An ailing economy, upcoming presidential election also pushing Turkish leader to seek rapprochement with the US, Egypt, Gulf states
“Just as a step was taken between us and the United Arab Emirates, we will take similar steps with the others,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish reporters on Monday, referring to Egypt and Israel.
Two weeks ago, when Israeli tourists Natali and Mordy Oknin, both bus drivers, finally returned home after being detained in Turkey and accused of spying for Israel, few predicted rapprochement between the two countries might follow. What is pushing Turkey toward Israel after a decade of strained if not hostile relations and how wide is the current window of opportunity?
Turkey’s lira slid to a record low of 13 to the dollar on Tuesday, following the decision of the central bank to cut the key rate by a percentage point, despite rising inflation. The currency crisis is shaking the Turkish economy and threatening stability in a country that badly needs foreign investment and jobs.
The situation is so difficult that technology giant Apple halted sales in the country before raising its prices. On the other end of the spectrum, bread lines were spotted over the last few days in Istanbul and other cities.
This dire situation explains in part the sudden changes in foreign policy, as well as some intriguing statements lately made by Erdogan. Speaking at the Economic Cooperation Summit in Turkmenistan this week, he called on allies to recognize the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (currently it is only recognized by Turkey), in what appears to be an attempt to galvanize Turkish public opinion.
However, at the same time, after coming back from Turkmenistan, Erdogan also said that Ankara “will take similar steps with other countries,” responding to a question regarding the possibility of mending ties with Egypt and Israel.
This statement follows the truly royal reception extended on November 24 to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MbZ, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who visited Turkey for the first time in years.
Dr. Ahmet Kasım Han, professor and vice rector at Istanbul Aydın University, believes there is a direct link between the ailing Turkish economy, the upcoming presidential election and the new foreign policy path that Erdogan is currently exploring.
“If Turkish elections are held on the normal schedule – June 2023 – there is a little time left before the elections, and in case of early elections there is even less time left. So, it’s very important to mend Turkey’s regional relations, with Israel and with other countries,” he told The Media Line.
“The government is experimenting regarding the economy. The jury is still out on the outcome of this test and, to be frank, it doesn’t look very good. Even if they are expecting positive developments, it’s obvious that without foreign money being injected into the Turkish economy it will struggle and it will not help the government to get reelected,” Han said.
If Turkish elections are held on the normal schedule – June 2023 – there is a little time left before the elections, and in case of early elections there is even less time left. So, it’s very important to mend Turkey’s regional relations, with Israel and with other countries.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, believes that that the Turkish president remains committed to his Islamist political agenda despite what he calls a “U-turn in foreign policy.”
“It is a tactical move in the runup to the challenging presidential and parliamentary elections of 2023. Erdogan’s trademark move in politics has been to lure former adversaries into a tactical alliance only to go after them with a vengeance once he consolidates power. Erdogan’s counterparts should proceed with caution in burnishing the Turkish president’s tarnished image at a time when his popularity has hit an all-time low in the polls,” Erdmir told The Media Line.
During MbZ’s visit to Turkey, the UAE leader outlined plans to launch a $10 billion fund to support investment in Turkey. This fund is designed to focus on health care, food security and energy.
According to Han, Turkey is looking to Israel for something other than investments – its assumed influence in Washington as well as its cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Israel is presumed to be a gateway for positive relations with the US. Furthermore, in light of developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey wants to overcome its once cherished solitude so that it can mend its relations with the US, and tip the balance in EastMed in its favor,” he said.
“Turkish decision-makers have reached a point where they don’t want to have aggravated relations in the region, and there is a real window of opportunity. However, I also find that lack of trust will be difficult to overcome,” Han said.
Dr. Nimrod Goren, president and founder of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, says Ankara has been looking to upgrade relations with Israel, as well as with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for quite some time.
“At the regional level, Turkey is interested in changing the situation in which it finds itself outside of relationships and alliances that are expanding without it, and with a limited ability to influence what is happening in this space,” Goren told The Media Line.
“Specifically in Israel’s case, returning ambassadors is not a dramatic change but a relatively simple step that allows countries to launch a strategic dialogue on regional issues,” such as Iran and Syria, he said. “Increase in economic cooperation will give Turkey more leeway in the Palestinian sphere (with the return of the consul to east Jerusalem); for Israel, it will enable it to expand ties in the Muslim world. Also, in the case that rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt will develop, it may also be possible to open up a framework for a joint discussion on the Gaza issue,” he also said.
Israel is presumed to be a gateway for positive relations with the US
In addition to geopolitical and energy spheres, weapon deals also are on the table when Turkey and Israel’s rapprochement is discussed, according to Dr. Selin Nasi, London Representative of the Ankara Policy Center.
“From Ankara’s perspective, on the other hand, Israel has always been a significant actor in terms of facilitating friendly ties with Washington. As is known, Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program not only caused economic losses but also undermined her defense capabilities in the long term. For the foreseeable future, Turkey’s return to the F-35 program is not likely as long as Ankara continues her stance with regard to the S-400s issue. Yet, in order to compensate for the loss, the Turkish government has been trying to persuade the Biden administration to sell it F-16s. Ankara might be hoping to get some help from the Israeli lobbies in Washington in this regard. Also, in the long run, if and when trust is revived between the two countries, Israel might be the provider of the long-range air defense missile systems Turkey has been seeking,” Nasi told The Media Line.
Until recently, Israel maintained its cool in the face of Turkish advances and attempts to warm ties, according to Goren. Just a week ago, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid demanded that Turkey shut down the offices of Hamas in the country, after Israeli security services arrested a 50-member Hamas cell in the West Bank that was operated directly from Istanbul, where many leaders of the Palestinian Islamist group reside.
“We are still at the same point, and only six weeks had passed since the ‘Mossad affair,’ when Turkish security services announced arrest of 15 individuals and claimed that they were Israeli Mossad agents,” Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies told The Media Line.
“There was not even one Israeli there. All those arrested were Palestinians or Syrians, who might have spied on Hamas for the PA,” or Palestinian Authority, Yanarocak said.
“Today the Turks do not oppose normalization [with Israel] – due to Mohammed bin Zayed’s efforts. However, you need two to tango. Israel has to make sure that Turkey is distancing itself from the Hamas terrorist organization and normalizes relations, i.e., halts anti-Israel rhetoric and incitement. Israel needs real normalization, while Turkey needs to understand that Israel is not the same country it was in 1948, when it was isolated and alone,” he said.
Due to the opening of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to cross en route to the Far East, Israel’s isolation has decreased, Yanarocak says. “It’s not 1948 anymore,” he added.
Once upon a time, Turkey was a gateway for Israel in order to solidify its security in a region where it was isolated and outcast, and today Turkey resembles Israel of the past
There have been reports in the Turkish and Egyptian press lately that Turkish authorities are curbing some activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country. However, fo r now, Hamas leaders and activists continue as usual.
“Ironically, Israel’s regional posture today and its relations in the EastMed and Mideast are better than Turkey’s. Once upon a time, Turkey was a gateway for Israel in order to solidify its security in a region where it was isolated and outcast, and today Turkey resembles Israel of the past,” Han added.
“And now Turkey sees its relations with Israel as a factor that will improve its relations” with other countries, he said.
At the same time, he prefers to remain cautious, saying that although there are many reasons for Turkey to grow closer to Israel and the US, “there are many obstacles to overcome, especially with the US,” such as the issue of US-based Turkish dissident Fethullah Gülen, or the investigation into Halkbank, the Turkish bank accused of violating US sanctions on Iran.
“Clearly, there are also big issues to solve with Israel. These difficulties should not be underestimated,” Han warned.