Making connections between Hamas, UAE, Sheikh Jarrah and Israel-Turkey

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Hamas is trying to sabotage budding reconciliation between Israel and Turkey like it did in 2017.

 TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses with children as he visits the Turkish Pavilion of Expo 2020 in Dubai on Monday. (photo credit: PRESIDENTAL PRESS OFFICE)
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses with children as he visits the Turkish Pavilion of Expo 2020 in Dubai on Monday.

On February 6, 2017, after a lull of some five-and-a-half months, Hamas fired a rocket that landed in a field in southern Israel. This attack triggered a forceful Israeli retaliation.

A few hours later, Turkey’s Tourism Minister Nabi Avci arrived in Israel – the first Turkish minister to visit in seven years – to participate in a tourism expo.

According to Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, who served as Avci’s translator during a press conference held with then-tourism minister Yariv Levin, the events were connected. It was obvious at the time, he said, that Hamas fired the rocket to provoke an Israeli retaliation that would then poison the atmosphere for the Turkish minister’s visit. For had not Turkey set itself up as Gaza’s great defender?

Why is that relevant today? Because the same dynamic is at play now.

Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, made the connection between the warming of ties between Israel and Turkey, President Isaac Herzog’s planned trip to Ankara next month, and the violence that rocked the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah this week.

Hamas warned that it would respond to the current developments in Sheikh Jarrah – as it did on May 10 when it fired 150 rockets at Israel, including seven toward Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, ostensibly over planned evictions in the contentious east Jerusalem neighborhood.

 DEMONSTRATORS SHOUT slogans during a protest against a prospective visit by President Isaac Herzog outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul last month. (credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS) DEMONSTRATORS SHOUT slogans during a protest against a prospective visit by President Isaac Herzog outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul last month. (credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

Just as Hamas fired a rocket five years ago to sabotage a visit by a Turkish minister, so, too, is it trying to torpedo an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, Yanarocak said. And it is clear why.

If Turkey wants to dramatically improve ties with Israel, which it clearly does, it will have to pay a price. A big part of that price will be to significantly curtail Hamas’s operations in Turkey, if not kick out of the country the leaders of the terrorist organization, some of whose members carry Turkish diplomatic passports and have even obtained Turkish citizenship.

But that would not be the only price Hamas would pay, the Turkish translator Yanarocak said. Any diplomatic rapprochement between Ankara and Jerusalem Turkey and Israel would inevitably also lead to Turkey – currently a stalwart backers of Hamas – increasing its engagement with Hamas’s rivals in the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas, therefore, has a keen interest in sabotaging Israeli-Turkish ties. Yanarocak said it is important to keep in mind that there are actors in the region that would “not like to see Turkey and Israel together,” and that will take steps to try and ensure it doesn’t happen.

BUT NOT ALL is bleak, because there are also powerful – and very wealthy – regional players that want to see the two countries mend fences so they can stand together against the biggest regional menace of all: Iran.

Turkey’s overtures to Israel began in earnest, Yanarocak said, after Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) made a landmark visit to Turkey in the fall. Why landmark? Because it was the first such visit in a decade, and came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the United Arab Emirates and MBZB of being behind the attempted coup against him in 2016.

But, Yanarocak said, there is a popular expression in Turkish: “Yesterday is yesterday, and today is today.”

That coup was yesterday. For Erdogan, what is desperately needed today – with his country in economic free fall and badly isolated in the region – is to repair ties with the UAE. During that visit MBZ pledged some $10 billion worth of investments for Turkey – an economic infusion desperately needed – and in January the Emirates UAE went even further and agreed to bolster the floundering Turkey’s foreign currency reserves by engaging in a $4.74b. currency exchange swap. Erdogan reciprocated with a visit to the UAE this week.

Ten billion dollars buys a lot of sway, and – according to Avci's translator Yanarocak – one thing it purchased was the fine-tuning of Turkish foreign policy to make it more compatible with that of the UAE. It is worth noting that Israel is now a significant component in the UAE’s foreign policy.

According to Yanarocak, MBZ wants to move Turkey into the Abraham Accords axis – meaning that there will likely be a Turkish rapprochement with Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well – to strengthen the anti-Iranian, Sunni camp in the region.

Ironically, one of the by-products of the Abraham Accords, which Erdogan vociferously opposed in 2020 and over which he threatened to suspend ties with the UAE, is closer Turkish ties with Israel.

BUT THERE is more than just the UAE to Erdogan’s about-face on Israel. The second key engine driving this change of policy is the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Turks view the three-way Israel-Greece-Cyprus diplomatic and military alliance that has developed as a national security threat.

After the US announced last month that it was removing its hand from the proposed EastMed pipeline that would have pumped natural gas from Israeli and Cypriot natural gas fields to Greece, and from there on to Italy and further into Europe, Turkey sensed an opportunity to try and weaken that alliance.

The Turks, Yanarocak said, are hoping that this reconciliation with Israel will come at the expense of the Israel-Greece-Cyprus relationship.

“But Israeli decision-makers are not going to compromise their strategic relationship with Cyprus and Greece for a fragile normalization with Turkey,” he said.

An indicator of this is the scheduled visit of President Isaac Herzog to Greece and Cyprus before he goes to Turkey next month, a clear signal to those countries that warmer ties with Ankara Turkey do not mean cooler ties with them.

“There are many important things that Cyprus and Greece can offer that Turkey cannot,” Yanarocak said. First, both are European Union members, and it is important for Israel to have strong allies inside the EU besides Germany and Hungary.

Second, he continued, Cyprus provides the IDF with important training grounds for military drills and maneuvers, as its mountainous regions are topographically similar to the mountainous regions in Lebanon. Greece, moreover, allows the IAF to train in its airspace.

Another major component in Turkey’s overtures toward Israel is the American angle, he Yanarocak said.

“Erdogan sees Israel as a bridge to [US President] Joe Biden. During the last two weeks when Erdogan had COVID, no Western leader called him to wish him well, except for Herzog.” Yanarocak said.

He added that a A good place for Erdogan to start mending fences with the West will be by shaking Herzog’s hand, Yanarocak said. “This will provide a good picture for investors thinking of investing in Turkey, because when you mend fences with Israel, you may assume that other Western states, particularly the United States, may follow the same path in the very near future.”

JISS PRESIDENT Efriam Inbar, the president of the JISS, who has written extensively on Israel-Turkey relations for years, said that the Turks have always believed that Israel and Jewish organizations in Washington have a strong influence on American foreign policy and that improving relations with Israel Jerusalem could be helpful for Ankara in Washington.

Inbar said that eEvery Israeli government going back to 1948 has wanted good relations with Turkey because it is “an important and strong country” in the Middle East, Inbar said, and that this has not changed.

But what has changed, he said, is that Turkey is now “running after us, and that is good.” He noted that Erdogan invited Herzog for a visit, not the other way around.

Or, as Yanarocak put it, Israel is at the strongest point it has ever been, and Turkey is currently at its weakest point: “For the first time in the history of the bilateral relations, Israel’s hand is stronger.”

What that means is that Israel is therefore in a position to make demands.

According to Inbar, these demands – in addition to evicting Hamas’s leadership – should include a demand that Ankara take a more nuanced policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that there be clear limitations to Turkish activity in Jerusalem so as not to impinge upon Israeli sovereignty, and that Turkey stop vetoing closer Israeli-NATO cooperation, as it has done for years.

YANAROCAK ADDED another demand as well: the end of the antisemitism and demonization of Israel in Erdogan-controlled media. He said that over the last month there has been a noticeablye positive difference in the media atmosphere toward Jews, and pointing to a story that he said got enormous play of a rabbi flying through Istanbul who was trapped in the city because of a snowstorm and was given shelter in a mosque.

While many Israelis may find reconciliation with Erdogan difficult to stomach – because of his actions and rhetoric that have been stridently anti-Israeli, and sometimes antisemitic, over the last 20 years – Yanarocak and Inbar said that improved relations with Ankara are very much in Jerusalem’s interests.

“Turkey should be considered a strategic asset for the national security of the State of Israel,” Yanarocak said. “We do not have any intention of turning this powerful country into an enemy. We need to think in a more complex way. 

"We should not design our foreign policy only for the Erdogan administration, but also for the long run, and think about the day after Erdogan," he said. A state needs to design foreign policy not from today to tomorrow, but from today to 50 and 200 years from now. That is called the grand strategy.”

And in that grand Israeli foreign policy strategy, he said, Turkey definitely has a significant role to play.