Israel-Turkey relations are back, but will they last?

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: The resumption of full relations means there will be ambassadors in both countries and new flights.

 YAIR LAPID, then serving as foreign minister, shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara in June.  (photo credit: NECATI SAVAS/REUTERS)
YAIR LAPID, then serving as foreign minister, shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara in June.
(photo credit: NECATI SAVAS/REUTERS)

Israel and Turkey restored full diplomatic relations this month. President Isaac Herzog spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the restoration of ties. The resumption of full relations means there will be ambassadors in both countries and new flights.

On the face of it, this is a positive sign. Countries should have normal relations. Turkey has been trying to return to full relations with Israel for the past two years. Israel and Turkey ostensibly share some common interests in the region, such as concerns about Iran’s role in Iraq as well as an interest in working with Russia and the West. The administration of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid have worked to rekindle ties.

There are several reasons to be concerned about the ties with Ankara. First of all, Ankara has supported Hamas for many years. Not long ago, reports said Hamas was planning terrorist attacks from Turkey. Hamas terrorist leaders were welcomed with ceremonial courtesy in Turkey and were treated by its president as though Hamas were a legitimate government. In fact, Hamas got better treatment from Turkey than from most of the other countries in the region.

How can a country like Turkey, which claims to “fight terrorism” and even opposes Sweden and Finland joining NATO because Ankara claims they host “terrorists,” also back Hamas? Hamas has murdered hundreds in terrorist attacks. For Ankara’s current far-right government, though, Hamas is a normal group to be greeted with smiles.

Turkey’s ties with Hamas and other far-right, antisemitic and racist Islamist groups are a concern. Ankara has backed extremists in  who persecute Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and other minorities. As a country of minorities, Israel knows all too well that persecution of minorities always leads to antisemitism. Countries that crush the rights of Kurds are always the same countries in the region that have been anti-Israel.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not pictured), in Tehran, Iran July 19, 2022. (credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS)Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not pictured), in Tehran, Iran July 19, 2022. (credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS)

Countries don’t need to share a worldview to have ambassadors, and on this level Turkey-Israel ties would appear to be a positive development for trade and other issues.

But there are other questions about what motivates Ankara’s outreach to Israel. Ankara has spread rumors in the past trying to get Israel to bypass its close ties with Cyprus and Greece in favor of energy deals with Turkey. It would appear that Ankara wants to harm Israel’s ties with Greece. This use of ties with Israel to harm Israel’s ties with other countries is clear. Turkey threatened in August 2020 to end relations with the UAE if the UAE made peace with Israel. How can the leadership in Ankara want to harm Israel-UAE ties one day and then want to rekindle relations with Israel the next?

One could argue that Turkey’s regime, which has been led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the last two decades, is simply erratic in its behavior.

But this claim doesn’t seem backed up by all the facts. The ruling party of Turkey is very capable of having smooth ties with Iran, Russia, China and other countries. It is primarily Israel with which Turkey has been up to these antics, like hosting Hamas and threatening ties with the UAE in order to isolate Jerusalem.

It was only a few years ago that Turkish pro-government media were hosting stories about “liberating” Jerusalem from Israel and slamming Israel as a genocidal country. The same media in Turkey, with a rubber stamp from the government, also were running articles naming all the Jews in the Biden administration as a way to insinuate that Jews and “Zionists” control the White House.

It could be that Ankara’s sudden decision in the last years to seek closer Israel ties is because of the antisemitic belief that closer ties with Israel will help get pro-Israel voices to lobby for Turkey in Washington.

This isn’t far-fetched, many groups and some other small countries have often tried to work with Jewish groups or pro-Israel groups in order to further their interests in the US, under the mistaken impression that being close to Israel opens all the doors in DC. Israel should be wary of being used for such machinations.

The last reason for concern over the new ties is the 10 years of anti-Israel behavior by Ankara. Back in 2009 Turkey’s Erdogan stormed off a stage in Davos during a meeting with Shimon Peres. Erdogan said: “I remember two former prime ministers in your country who said they felt very happy when they were able to enter Palestine on tanks.... I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. There have been many people killed. And I think that it is very wrong and it is not humanitarian.” Erdogan has compared Israel to Nazi Germany several times in major speeches, most recently in 2018 and 2019. How can someone who views Israel as the Nazis also want ties with Israel?

Turkey is not looking for change

FROM ALL the evidence it appears that Ankara’s regime won’t change its spots. It wants relations with Israel again now in part because it knew it couldn’t get anything from the previous Netanyahu administration. Turkey’s leadership destroyed ties with Israel during Netanyahu’s years in power, including unleashing the Mavi Marmara flotilla against Israel. That flotilla was full of far-right activists from Turkey who tried to get to Gaza and attacked Israelis sent to interdict the ships. From bashing Peres to the Marmara affair, Turkey has gone on to increase backing for Hamas and compare Israel to Nazis. This isn’t just erratic behavior, but a decade of hate directed at Israel. That Turkey now wants to reverse course seems odd, considering this background.

Israel has been wary of Turkey’s outreach because Israel doesn’t want to be treated as a kind of “rag,” as is said in Hebrew. Israel doesn’t feel it needs Ankara. This is important in the power relationship because Ankara has treated Israel as if it is the weaker partner in the past, expecting Israel to beg for relations. Ankara has a habit of doing this to other countries, forcing Sweden and Finland to beg to join NATO, for instance. Israel should be wary of enabling Turkey to put it in any position where Israel “needs” Turkey. For instance Turkey detained Israeli tourists in the past to wring concessions. Ankara has often also let Iranian agents operate in Turkey, only to then pretend it is cooperating with Israel against Iran. Israel’s wariness of this policy is important.

The timing of the new ties is chosen to coincide with Israel’s elections. If Netanyahu returns to power, it will be easier for Turkey to then pressure Israel by threatening to cut ties. This is the logic of Ankara’s move. It knows that the next Israeli government may not be keen on talking to Turkey. It knows that Netanyahu worked hard on Greece-Cyprus ties. It also knows that the current government was more open to turning over a new leaf.

The main question that remains is whether Ankara will also turn over a new leaf. Considering the past comments, it is hard to see how that is possible. The ruling far-right party in Turkey is deeply anti-American, and it is a regime that works closely with Russia and Iran. It has harmed NATO, the EU and Western democratic models of governance. That means that there are very few interests that coincide today between Jerusalem and Ankara.

Although trade is important, beyond that it’s not clear how ties will work well. In the past Turkey wanted to help work on peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians, and even Israel and Syria. However, Ankara’s goals have shifted in that regard.

Today, any kind of peace deal Ankara backs will involve moving Hamas closer to Ramallah and Jerusalem. Israel doesn’t want Hamas on its doorstep. That sets in motion an inevitable clash.