In 2018 Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Israel to Nazi Germany. In 2019 Turkey’s leader bashed Israel in his speech to the United Nations.
This week the same Turkish leader met with Israel’s Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, the countries have restored relations and Ankara is meeting with Jewish organizations, putting on a kind of charm offensive.
How can a country’s leadership shift from describing Israel as similar to the Nazis, slandering the memory of the Holocaust, and then suddenly getting along with the same country? Ankara has hosted Hamas terrorists for years, given a red carpet to Hamas leaders as recently as 2020, and yet today it wants ties with Jerusalem.
It's worth reviewing a bit of the background to examine how Turkey-Israel relations have come to this point. Is this a genuinely new era, or will Ankara quickly reverse course again? Let’s look at some of the history.
Erdogan's history of accusations against Israel
In 2018 Erdogan said “today, the Palestinians are subjected to pressures, violence and intimidation policies no less grave than the oppression done to the Jews during WWII,” according to reports.
According to the BBC, he said that recent laws in Israel "has shown without leaving the slightest room for doubt that Israel is the world's most Zionist, fascist, racist state…There is no difference between Hitler's obsession with the Aryan race and Israel's understanding that these ancient lands are meant only for Jews…The spirit of Hitler, which led the world to a great catastrophe, has found its resurgence among some of Israel's leaders.”
Ankara has never apologized for those comments are walked them back. In New York, however, the Turkish leader met with Prime Minister Lapid. Ankara’s authoritarian leader also held a meeting with representatives of 32 Jewish organizations, according to an article in the JTA. According to the report, Erdogan was not asked about his previous antisemitic comment and comparing Israel to the Nazis.
According to the JTA report “as recently as 2021, during the most recent flare-up between Israel and Gaza, Erdogan was castigated by the U.S. state department for statements they deemed as antisemitic.” The same Turkish leader who got smiles from Jewish leaders this week is the same one who said of Israel in 2021; “They are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They only are satisfied by sucking their blood…It is in their nature.” According to the JTA “at a 2015 rally, he also lashed out at Western media, saying that ‘Jewish Capital’ is behind The New York Times.”
The early days of the Turkish-Israeli relationship
Ostensibly Turkey-Israel ties were very good for many years from the 1950s to the 1990s. Those ties coincided with the fact that Turkey was often run by the same secular party that had its roots in Ataturkism, the founding ideology of modern Turkey.
Israel was also run by a center-left nationalist Labor party, or a version of it, for decades. Founders of the state of Israel and key Zionist leaders had studied in Istanbul and areas that became modern Turkey. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion studied law in Turkey in 1912.
The origins of Israel, modern-day Zionism, and Turkish nationalism are entwined. Things changed in both countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Turkey has always had far-right political parties rooted in Islamic politics. The rise of the AKP party, and former versions of it, is linked to a major shift in the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s as political Islam took hold among many young people.
The rise of Hamas, whose roots like the AKP are in the Muslim Brotherhood, is tied to this process. For some, the rise of political Islamic groups was a promising development that could bring “democracy” to countries dominated by militarist nationalist strongmen. There was a belief that Turkey might transition from secular nationalism, underpinned by military coups, to a new form of democracy. The Kurdish minority and some Jews in Turkey had high hopes for this shift in the early 2000s. Erdogan was known to Jews through his work in Istanbul, and some thought Israel-Turkey relations would proceed well when he came to power.Turkey desired in the early 2000s to have “zero problems” with its neighbors and it did a lot of outreach, talking to the Assad regime and even hoping to play a role in peace processes between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians. Turkey’s ruling party also shifted from being a eurocentric NATO member to seeking ties to the Islamic world and Turkic-speaking countries.
A deterioration in the relationship
By the time of the 2009 war in Gaza, Turkish-Israel relations were rapidly shifting. Erdogan bashed Israel in the wake of the conflict and famously stormed off stage at Davos when he was on a panel with Shimon Peres.
It's worth recalling that prior to the 2009 incident Turkey had continued to work with Jewish community leaders in the US. It’s unclear if Ankara’s outreach to Jewish organizations in the early 2000s was due to genuine belief in coexistence, or if Ankara’s new rulers held antisemitic views that led them to think Jews have influence in the US and that courting Jews would get them more ties to Washington.
Whatever the initial reason for the outreach Ankara got a lot of things in return. Erdogan got an award from the AJC in 2004. In 2014 the JTA noted that “an association of Jewish Americans said Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has become the world’s ‘most virulent anti-Israeli leader’ and demanded he will return an award it gave him a decade ago, partly for his efforts to broker peace between Israel and Palestinians.”
According to reports, Turkey sought to use Jewish organizations in the US to prevent recognition of the Armenian genocide. Turkey also tried to get Israel to lobby on its behalf to stop Congress and organizations from recognizing the genocide of Armenians.
According to a Haaretz report from 2007, the “Turkish Government is pressuring Israel in an effort to reverse an American Jewish Organization's decision to recognize Turkey's massacre of Armenians.” It’s unclear why Israel, a country that cares about the Holocaust, and Jewish organizations that also claim to care about the Holocaust, went to bat for Turkey’s far-right government to deny a genocide.
However, this is what happened, due to Ankara’s pressure. Nevertheless, the appeasement didn’t work. Before long Ankara was angry at Israel over the war in Gaza and right-wing activists in Turkey linked to the group IHH were forming a flotilla to try to get to Gaza. In May of 2010 hundreds of extremists set sail aboard the Mavi Marmara, seeking to get to Gaza. A raid by Israel to top the ship led to the deaths of ten Turks and a breakdown in relations.
After the Marmara incident, Turkey demanded apologies from Israel in order to restore relations. Apologies came in 2013 and 2015, and there was an effort to restore ties. But ties fell apart again in 2018 when the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
This was an interesting case where Turkey punished Israel for US actions. The overall trend by this time was that Ankara was positioning itself increasingly as a champion of Islamic causes, including Gaza-based Hamas. Ankara’s increasingly anti-Israel policies helped pave the way for closer ties between Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
It’s worth recalling that, just as in the case of Ankara using Israel to push genocide denial, Turkey-Israel relations had generally meant that Ankara’s adversaries in Greece and Cyprus did not have warm ties to Israel. Now things have shifted and under Netanyahu’s decade in power, Israel grew rapidly closer to Greece and Cyprus.
Turkey ended its attempts to reconcile with Israel during the Trump administration, judging that it had support from Washington for actions in Syria; and also judging that its increasingly close ties to Iran, China and Russia meant Turkey didn’t need Israel. But Ankara’s increasingly erratic behavior in 2018-2020, led to yet another shift in policy.
Turkey’s ruling AKP party led a crackdown on the opposition after a coup attempt, and it sought to crush the Kurdish opposition political entities as well. Everyone from the center to left was increasingly being imprisoned or harassed into keeping quiet. A referendum made Erdogan even more powerful than before and he courted authoritarian leaders abroad. Turkey courted crisis with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, France and other countries.
Ankara’s outreach to Israel began as the Trump administration’s era came to an end in 2020. Turkey had hosted high-level Hamas delegations several times and by the summer of 2020 even the Trump administration, which had close ties to Ankara, was willing to condemn Turkey. Ankara invested heavily in ties to the White House between 2016 and 2020.
Then came 2020. With the Trump administration likely to lose the election, Turkey put out feelers to Israel and sent its lobbyists in the US to see if there could be a new era in relations with Israel. At first, this was a quiet move and then over time, it became more pronounced with Turkey announcing reconciliation, even before the process had started. This was a strange signal because Turkey had also tried to derail the Abraham Accords, threatening to cut ties to the UAE.
Ankara’s talking points about reconciliation were two-fold. First, the regime said that once Netanyahu left office then reconciliation would proceed. Netanyahu had never been shy about confronting Turkey’s attacks on Israel. He was willing to mention Kurdish rights and accuse Turkey of “massacres” of Kurds. Netanyahu also accused Turkey of occupying Northern Cyprus. This was Netanyahu’s policy of only showing strength when Israel was slandered, believing that countries respect strength.
Ankara got the message apparently, but wouldn’t reconcile so long as Netanyahu was in office. Once Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett came to power the reconciliation began, with Israel’s presidential visit, Turkey’s foreign minister's visit to Israel, the appointment of a new Israeli ambassador and eventually the meeting this week.
It’s important to look at the timing here. Ankara knows that Israel will have elections soon. It wants to cement ties before the elections, knowing that if Netanyahu returns to power that it would be embarrassing for Ankara to be seen to be rushing into the arms of Israel again.
Turkey also has lost a lot of support in Washington over the years. The close relations between Turkey and Russia, its authoritarianism and its threats to Greece, Cyprus, Kurds and Armenia have all angered the United States. Turkey tries to play both sides, claiming to help Ukraine and claiming to be against Russia and Iran; while also spending time with authoritarian anti-western regimes.
At the same time the ruling party in Turkey, despite its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has also pushed for reconciliation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other states. This charm offensive is designed to end the isolation that it caused itself between 2016-2020.
Ankara often tells its supporters that it is chalking up wins with these new ties, like someone who burns down a house and then rebuilds it claiming to have accomplished something. Turkey’s current ruler believes that Ankara gets respect by slandering other countries and then meeting their leaders as if somehow it achieved something.
This is the case with Israel, having hosted Hamas and slandered Israel for years. Ankara is pleased that it can still open doors in Washington and get meetings with Jewish leaders and Israel’s Prime Minister as if nothing has happened.
In the process Ankara hopes it might be able to redirect Israeli trade deals and perhaps work with Israel on energy issues, hoping to sideline Greece and Cyprus. Israel has assured Greece and Cyprus that new ties with Turkey won’t change Israel’s stance.
Ankara will now have to see if it can refrain from a return to the bad experience of 2009-2020. Unless there is new leadership in Turkey, it’s unclear how a regime built on opposition to Israel over the last decade can suddenly shift gears so easily.