Will the real Erdogan please stand up?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan has left no doubt where his heart is when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, and where his principles on this matter are.

 TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters during a ceremony in Istanbul, last year. (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters during a ceremony in Istanbul, last year.
(photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

From Independence Day 2021 to Independence Day 2022 on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone from cursing Israel to sending it his blessings.

Literally.

Last May, during the Ramadan Temple Mount violence that preceded Operation Guardian of the Walls, Erdogan – donning the mantle that he had woven for himself over the last 15 years as nothing less than Islam’s protector of Jerusalem – had this to say about Israel:

“Israel, the cruel terrorist state, attacks the Muslims in Jerusalem – whose only concern is to protect their homes and their sacred values – in a savage manner devoid of ethics.”

The violence in Jerusalem was “an attack on all Muslims,” the Turkish president declared, adding that “protecting the honor of Jerusalem is a duty for every Muslim.”

This May, just days after Ramadan again brought with it violence on the Temple Mount, Erdogan sent a congratulatory letter to President Isaac Herzog on the eve of Israel’s 74th Independence Day, wishing well to the state’s citizens.

“On the occasion of the national day of the State of Israel, I extend congratulation to Your Excellency and the people of Israel on behalf of my nation and myself,” Erdogan wrote to Herzog, with whom he has developed a surprisingly good relationship.

 Palestinians hang a giant banner during Eid al-Fitr prayers which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City May 2, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD) Palestinians hang a giant banner during Eid al-Fitr prayers which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City May 2, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

“In the new period in our relations, heralded by Your Excellency’s visit to our country in March, I sincerely believe that the cooperation between our countries will develop in a way that serves our mutual national interests, as well as regional peace and stability.

“Taking this opportunity, I extend my best wishes for the health and happiness of Your Excellency, and for the well-being and prosperity of the people of Israel.”

In words of the famous line from the classic American game show To Tell the Truth: Will the real Recep Tayyip Erdogan please stand up?

“Why all the skeptical cynicism?” the charitable may ask. “Can’t people change?”

Sure they can. But this is a pretty radical change – going from calling Israel a cruel terrorist state to wishing its people well-being and prosperity. Who wants residents of a “cruel terrorist state” to be well and to prosper?

Rather than evidence of a truly historic change of heart in just a few months, what this letter shows is the victory of Erdogan’s interests over his principles, his head over his heart.

ERDOGAN, WHO has led Turkey since 2003 – the first 11 years as prime minister, and the rest as president – has left no doubt where his heart is when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, and where his principles on this matter are.

In 2009, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey at the time, Gabby Levy, was quoted in a WikiLeaks cable as saying that Erdogan was a “fundamentalist” who “hates us religiously.” And that was before the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, which sent relations between the two countries into a tailspin.

And Yaki Dayan, a former senior Foreign Ministry official who, as chief of staff to former foreign ministers Silvan Shalom and Tzipi Livni, sat in on meetings with Erdogan, wrote in Haaretz last year, “In all of these meetings, I felt one thing clearly: the conspicuous lack of affection for Israel, and even hatred, did not come from his head but from his heart.”

According to Dayan, “Only those who were present in a meeting with Erdogan and felt his burning hatred for Israel, and only those who heard what he said, can understand how deeply these things are imprinted in his worldview.”

Erdogan, who over the last few years has done everything from comparing Israel’s actions in Gaza with the Holocaust to calling Zionism a “crime against humanity,” has not suddenly seen the light and had a change of heart.

What he has had, however, is a change of interests, necessitating a change of tactics. With Turkish presidential elections scheduled for June 2023, his country isolated in the region and its economy in a frightful state, Erdogan needs a change of his country’s fortunes quickly before facing the electorate.

ERDOGAN IS trying to force a change in these fortunes by radically recalibrating his country’s foreign policy. This has meant not only a 180-degree turn regarding Israel, but a similarly sharp and dramatic turn regarding relations with Saudi Arabia, a country he visited last week, and the United Arab Emirates, whose leader he hosted in November. Not too long ago he spewed fire and brimstone against them both. Now he seeks their friendship... and their financial help. A similar Turkish turn, though not as dramatic, is under way with Egypt.

Why? Because the policies he has championed over the last two decades have led to naught. Israeli Turkey expert Ofra Bengio wrote in Tablet earlier this year that when Erdogan assumed power in 2003, he set four main goals: to show the world that Islam and democracy can coexist; to solve the country’s chronic economic problems; to neutralize the Turkish army and solve the Kurdish issue to pave Turkey’s way into the EU; to assume the leadership of the Islamic world.

None of that has occurred.

Making his situation even more difficult, the “zero problems with neighbors” policy touted by his former foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu morphed with time into “a problems-with-all-the-neighbors-and-then some” policy that included a worsening of relations with the US, Russia, the Gulf states, Egypt the EU and – of course – Israel.

Now Erdogan is trying to reverse course, and with Israel his interests are threefold.

First are the economic interests. Even when Erdogan was most hostile to Israel, and the diplomatic ties between the two countries were nonexistent, trade boomed. Erdogan wants to expand that and bring energy into the mix. The country is dependent on Russia and Iran for its energy needs and would like to diversify through access to Israel’s natural gas reserves.

Once the US put the kibosh earlier this year on the EastMed pipeline leading from Israeli gas fields through Cyprus to Greece and then to Italy and the rest of Europe, Turkey had visions of rerouting that through Turkey, something that would give an enormous boost to the Turkish economy.

Similarly, a return of Israeli tourists to Istanbul’s bazaars and Antalya’s beaches – though only a small piece of Turkey’s overall tourism flow – would also give a modest shot to the country’s struggling economy.

Secondly, Turkey is keen on breaking out of its regional isolation. While Erdogan entertained neo-Ottoman dreams for much of the last two decades, all around him new alliances were forming – Israel-Greece-Cyprus; Israel-United Arab Emirates-Bahrain-Egypt – and he was not only feeling left out, but also threatened.

Finally, there is the American dimension. While Erdogan had a good relationship with former president Donald Trump, his relationship with the Biden administration has been troubled. In the early 1990s Turkey effectively used its ties to Israel to enlist the help of US Jewish organizations in Washington in support of a stronger Turkish-US relationship, and in one instance these groups advised the Turkish government on ways to fend off an Armenian Genocide bill.

So, too, now, are Erdogan’s overtures to Israel widely seen in part as an effort to pave his way back into Washington’s better graces.

IN POWER now for some 19 years, Erdogan has left a long trail of virulently anti-Israel words and actions that will not be erased by a charm offensive. He will be judged not by the content of Independence Day missives to Herzog, nor by his welcoming of Herzog to Istanbul in March, but by actions on the ground.

Regarding those actions, there have been some positive early signs.

The first was that when violence flared on the Temple Mount recently, Erdogan did not do what he has done in the past and pour rhetorical fuel on the fire.

Granted, he did say two weeks ago at a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party that “Turkey will never accept the oppression of Palestinians in Jerusalem and other regions in Palestine,” and that “for Turkey, political and economic ties with Israel – as necessitated by global and regional factors – are separate from the cause for Jerusalem.”

Then he added, “It is clear that the way to effectively defend the Palestinian cause is to have a reasonable, logical, consistent and balanced relationship with Israel.”

All that is a far cry from what he said after Trump announced in 2017 that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem: “Those who think they own Jerusalem better know that tomorrow they will not even be able to hide behind trees,” an ominous reference to a prophecy attributed to Muhammad of hunting down and killing every Jew before the Day of Judgment.

The second, more significant sign of changes on the ground reports that Erdogan has begun to both deport some Hamas members from Turkey and bar others from returning to the country.

Israel Hayom quoted an unnamed Palestinian official as saying this week that “dozens of people identified with Hamas” have been deported. Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar paper, according to Israel Hayom, confirmed this and said some Hamas members outside of Turkey were not allowed back into the country.

Actions speak louder than letters to Herzog, and if those types of actions continue, then it would go far in convincing Jerusalem that the mercurial Erdogan genuinely means it when he says, as he wrote to Herzog, that the two countries have entered a “new period in our relations.”