Turkey’s Strong Rhetoric Against Israel Sets Back Attempt to Thaw Relations
Ankara had wanted to improve ties amid a larger overture to neighboring countries
Turkey’s strong rhetoric against Israel over the recent violence in Gaza will set back attempts by Ankara to improve relations, analysts told The Media Line.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday called Israel “a terror state” that kills children and “is only satisfied by sucking their blood,” AFP reported.
Turkey was rebuked by the US for what it called “Erdogan’s recent antisemitic comments,” a charge Ankara rejected.
“I think Israeli-Turkish relations went back five years,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
In an attempt to thaw relations, Turkey reportedly appointed an ambassador to Israel in December 2020 after the two countries expelled each other’s ambassadors in 2018.
Yanarocak told The Media Line that Israel has an interest in maintaining relations with Turkey, which it sees as a strategic asset.
The two countries also have strong business ties and Israelis often travel to Turkey or through one of its major airports as a gateway to the rest of the region.
“Israeli decision-makers will not further [want] to deteriorate Israeli-Turkish relations. They will do their best to preserve relations at least in this current state,” Yanarocak said.
One possible avenue for improved relations would materialize if Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu leaves the government.
Yanarocak said that could allow Turkey to place the blame for the violence in Gaza solely on Netanyahu and seek better ties with Israel afterward.
“The Turkish president is a very flexible decision maker,” he said. “He’s capable of doing such a U-turn … and Netanyahu’s possible departure may play into his hand.”
He added that there would likely still be right-wing elements in the Israeli government and it is not known how that would play out for Turkey.
One of the top sticking points in improved relations between Turkey and Israel is Hamas.
Last summer, Erdogan met with Hamas leaders including its leader Ismail Haniyeh, and Israel has accused Ankara of giving Turkish passports to senior Hamas members.
The Turkish government did not respond to The Media Line’s request for comment.
Ankara’s aggressive foreign policy has antagonized several of its neighbors, leading to isolation in the region which it is now trying to undo.
A key example of Turkey’s isolation is the formation of a partnership between several of its long-time rivals, including Israel, to cooperate in exporting gas through the eastern Mediterranean Sea, leaving Ankara out of a lucrative market.
In response, Ankara sent a navy-accompanied ship last year to explore for gas in the sea, angering the European Union.
Such a tough stance plays well to Erdogan’s Islamist, nationalist base as does criticizing Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.
“There’s a continued self-perception within Erdogan, and within his circle and his supporters that Turkey is a leading country in the Muslim world… He must lead the Muslim world in condemning the Jewish state,” said Simon Waldman, an Istanbul-based visiting research fellow and lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at King’s College London.
Waldman told The Media Line that Turkey’s comments against Israel during the most recent violence in Gaza are very typical for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Turkish government has been successful in compartmentalizing relations by criticizing Israel ideologically while maintaining economic ties, he said.
He added that Turkey’s recent rhetoric will be a reminder to Israel of how unreliable relations are with Ankara.
Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker from the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and currently senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Media Line that countries suspect Turkey’s attempts at improved ties are short-term and tactical but, regardless, he believes Erdogan may again try to reset relations with Israel.
Erdemir said the Turkish president needs to realize that Israel will have its limits on how much rhetoric it can accept from a country.
But that may be difficult for Erdogan who, according to Erdemir, keeps returning to anti-Semitic comments that are at the core of his values.
“It stems from who he has always been,” Erdemir said.
“He’s not unique. He’s a typical representative of Turkey’s traditional political Islam. So, this is less an issue of Erdogan per se and more an issue of a brand of politicians and political parties in Turkey,” he said.