Is Turkey pretending it wants reconciliation with Israel again? - analysis

This annual cycle often tends to be smoke and mirrors, usually spread by a whispering campaign mobilized by Turkey that is designed to isolate and undermine Israel.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 14, 2020 (photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 14, 2020
(photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Israeli media over the last weeks have indicated that Turkey-Israel relations might improve. According to numerous reports Turkey is planning steps to improve relations, or might even be tying the mending of relations to a recent reconciliation between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

The problem with all these reports is they are based largely on vague comments in Ankara and an annual cycle of stories about Israel and Turkey reconciling. This annual cycle often tends to be smoke and mirrors, usually spread by a whispering campaign mobilized by Turkey that is designed to isolate and undermine Israel, under the guise of getting Israel to sabotage its partnerships or beg Turkey for new friendship.

Let’s look at the recent round of reconciliation narratives. It began when Turkey detained an Israeli couple, innocent tourists who were threatened with extreme charges of espionage.

Oddly the story that emerged was that Turkey’s leader had intervened to have the couple freed and that this indicated Turkey was ready to improve ties. But it was Turkey’s leadership that had detained the couple in the first place. This sounds more like mafia reconciliation than warm ties. A country doesn’t detain citizens of another country to get better ties.

Meanwhile, on November 23 reports emerged that Israel had called on Ankara to close Hamas offices in Turkey. Turkey has long hosted Hamas and given red carpet receptions to Hamas terrorists. In fact, with the exception of Iran, it appears Hamas gets the most adoring support from Ankara.  

 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 (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 (credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

It’s not a secret that Turkey’s ties to Hamas are a huge problem. Various reports over the years have indicated that Hamas plans terror attacks from Turkey, that it may even plan cyber attacks and that Hamas members use Turkey to transit to other places.

In January 2021 reports said that Turkey’s welcome mat for Hamas was hindering normalization, according to Arab News.

It’s worth looking back briefly at how we got here. Turkey-Israel ties have gotten increasingly worse since the far-right AKP party came to power in Turkey almost two decades ago. Leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often been one of the most anti-Israel leaders in the world. Over the years there have been many incidents, including Israel’s ambassador being recalled from Ankara, and diplomats harassed, even tourists harassed and other incidents.

Turkey’s government has put out statements saying they will “liberate” Jerusalem from Israel, after having reconsecrated Hagia Sophia as a mosque, drawing parallels with Al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel-Turkey relations grew worse after the 2009 Gaza war and the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010. The Mavi Marmara was a large ship full of hundreds of far-right activists.

Israel raided the ship to prevent it getting to Gaza. Turkish citizens attacked Israeli soldiers and were killed. However, years later, there were attempts at reconciliation. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not willing to beg Turkey for better ties, and it was begging that Ankara wanted.

This left relations in the cold. Turkey was empowered by the Trump administration and Trump-Erdogan ties, as well as an active Turkish lobby in Washington, to become more extreme.

Turkey not only became more hostile to Israel during the Trump era, but began to threaten Greece and attack Kurds and spread antisemitic conspiracies. Turkey grew closer to Russia and Iran. But from time to time Turkey would float the idea that it might reconcile with Israel.

The reconciliation narrative was generally floated whenever Turkey sensed that Israel was on the verge of diplomatic success.

Even though Turkey’s leader compared Israel to Nazi Germany in September 2019, in December 2019 Turkey became concerned about Israel-Greece-Cyprus intensifying relations amid a pipeline deal between these eastern Mediterranean countries.

It sought to pretend it wanted reconciliation, even as it hosted Hamas in 2019 and 2020. In May 2020 Turkey encouraged claims that it had clashed with Hezbollah in northern Syria to make it seem that Ankara and Jerusalem are on the same side against Iran.

When Egypt, the UAE, France, Greece and Cyprus condemned Turkey in the spring of 2020, Turkey understood it was growing more isolated. After Trump lost the November elections Ankara knew it no longer had a friend in the White House and began pushing stories of “reconciliation” again.

These seemed to run counter to the reality of Ankara’s statements because Turkey had threatened to reduce ties with the UAE if the UAE made peace with Israel, as the UAE did in September 2020. This means that Ankara was talking up reconciliation while trying to isolate Israel from partners in the Gulf, Egypt and Greece. In March 2021 Turkey even fed Israeli media stories of a “maritime border” between Israel and Turkey, an imaginary border that would make Cypriot rights in the Mediterranean invisible. The maps and propaganda spread by Turkey at that time were designed to harm Israel-Cyprus ties under the guise of “reconciliation.”

This brings us to the recent stories. What does Turkey gain and benefit from talking up new ties. The problem with the narrative is there is no evidence Ankara wants better ties or is willing to do anything in which Israel benefits. “Just as a step was taken between us and the United Arab Emirates, we will take similar steps with the others,” Erdogan told Turkish reporters on board a plane in late November. But Ankara didn’t even mention “Israel” in this context. It can’t bring itself to say the word Israel. It thus wants “reconciliation” without actually doing anything.

As usual it wants Israel to be the one doing everything, and Israel to be begging Turkey for better ties. It wants Israel more isolated and to harm Israel ties to Greece, Cyprus and others.

It’s entirely plausible that Ankara, with an economy in tatters and declining lira, has been reaching out to the UAE and others with a sense that its aggressive stance over the last decade has not helped Ankara.

However, the question is always whether Ankara floats these ideas every six months to get something while rarely giving anything in return.

This recent set of rumors was set in motion by Ankara detaining Israeli tourists. Countries that want better ties don’t detain tourists on false charges. Ankara’s media rarely mentions better Israel ties. It seems that since most media in Turkey are linked to or run by the ruling party, it would, if serious run positive articles about Israel, not just feed Israeli media myths about “reconciliation.”