Israel-Turkey detente shadowed by Ankara's ties with Hamas - analysis

As President Herzog reconciles with Turkey's Erdogan, Ankara continues to host Hamas leaders.

 Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Hamas' Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh shake hands during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara January 3, 2012 (photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Hamas' Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh shake hands during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara January 3, 2012
(photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

Two police officers were stabbed by a 22-year old assailant in Jerusalem’s Old City on Monday. Hamas claimed responsibility and said the attacker was a member. Might there be a connection with Turkey?

The Turkish connection may come from one or two angles. The first: Turkey continues to host Hamas leaders, and it has been widely reported that past attacks in Israel have been planned on Turkish soil.

The second possible Turkish angle: President Isaac Herzog’s historic visit to Ankara on Wednesday, where he was welcomed with full pomp and ceremony by Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, long a Hamas-embracer.

Not everyone is thrilled at the Herzog visit nor the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation it presages, foremost among those being Hamas, which would like to thwart it.

One way to do so would be to provoke an Israeli military action against Gaza, and one way to do that is through terrorist attacks.

 Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog review a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony in Ankara, Turkey March 9, 2022. (credit: MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog review a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony in Ankara, Turkey March 9, 2022. (credit: MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Monday’s attack was the fourth in a matter of days. It followed another stabbing attack against policemen in the Old City on Sunday, and two stabbing attacks against Israelis last week in Hizma, just outside of Jerusalem.

Numerous reasons for this spike in terrorism were proffered, foremost among them the month of Ramadan, commencing April 2, which over the last few years has been a period of increased terrorism.

“In the coming period, and until after Ramadan, terrorists and extremists will try to set the area on fire,” Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev said after Sunday’s attack.

Bar Lev did not mention the possibility that this could be linked to the developments with Turkey, but he should have. Hamas could very well be trying to spoil the budding rapprochement between one of its biggest friends and its greatest enemy.

Anyone who has heard Erdogan’s strident anti-Israel rhetoric over the last 15 years – rhetoric that often crossed the line into antisemitism – had to be rubbing their eyes on Wednesday watching President Isaac Herzog welcomed at Erdogan’s presidential palace with a light blue carpet, mounted honor guards in ceremonial costume, and the playing of “Hatikvah.”

Erdogan, who not that long ago accused the Israeli people of genocide, who called Zionism a “crime against humanity,” and who said “we view the Holocaust in the same way we view those besieging Gaza and carrying out massacres in it,” stood at attention as “Hatikvah” was played, while Israel’s blue and white flag waved in the wind alongside Turkey’s banner.

Make no mistake, Erdogan has not had a change of heart, has not become a Zionist, and has not parked his Muslim Brotherhood sympathies at the door. Rather, Erdogan’s policies have brought Turkey to its weakest point internationally in years, just as Israel is arguably at its strongest point.

It’s not that Erdogan wants Israel, it’s that he needs Israel.

There is a well-known saying in Turkish, Jerusalem-based Turkey expert Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak said recently: “Yesterday is yesterday, today is today.”

Yesterday Erdogan thought that bashing Israel would catapult him to the leadership of the Muslim world – which it did for a certain period. Today he realizes his country needs much more than that, and it needs things that Israel can help provide.

What things?

First of all, a massive infusion into his flailing economy, the type of infusion only Gulf countries can provide. Israel is not the only recent adversary Erdogan is trying to turn into a friend. Last Fall Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed visited Turkey and pledged some $10 billion in investments, along with engaging in a nearly $5b. currency swap to bolster Turkey’s floundering foreign currency.

According to Yanarocak, what this bought was the United Arab Emirates’ ability to sway Turkish foreign policy toward the Abraham Accords axis, which means toward Israel.

Secondly, Turkey – which is looking to reduce its dependence on Russian and Iranian gas, a need made only more pressing by the war in Ukraine – wants Israeli natural gas. It wants this gas for its own domestic needs, and also wants Israel to use it as a hub for export into Europe.

And finally, Turkey sees Israel as a bridge to US President Joe Biden and the West. Erdogan’s policies have distanced him from Washington, and he hopes that a photograph with Herzog, and improved relations with Israel, will convince the US and the West that he is sincere about wanting to return to the fold.

But Israel needs to make it clear to Erdogan that it has expectations and demands of its own.

If Turkey wants to use Israel to end its isolation and get closer to Washington, if it wants Israeli natural gas, then Israel also has demands.

It wants Erdogan to stop his strident anti-Israel posturing, stop financially backing those agitating on the Temple Mount, stop blocking Israeli cooperation with NATO, and stop trying to torpedo Israel’s burgeoning ties with other countries in the Muslim world. After the Abraham Accords were signed, Erdogan threatened to recall his ambassador from the UAE to protest its establishment of ties with Jerusalem – which is ironic now that the UAE is helping to rescue the Turkish economy.

First and foremost, however, Israel wants Turkey to kick Hamas out of the country. Turkey has hosted a Hamas office, where attacks against Israelis are believed to have been planned. It continues to host senior Hamas leaders. It turns a blind eye to Hamas money laundering, and has provided Hamas members with passports.

It may be too much for Israel to ask that Turkey completely end its relationship with Hamas. At the very least, however, it can demand the end of Hamas operational activity via Turkey, and an end to Turkey providing Hamas with the infrastructure needed to carry out attacks.

Erdogan, through his invitation and hosting of Herzog, has made it clear he wants to normalize relations with the Jewish state, as difficult as that might be for him ideologically. And that is to be welcomed. But normalizing relations means removing hurdles that poison the ties, and there is no greater or more poisonous hurdle than Turkey playing host to an organization hell-bent on killing Israelis.