Allow me to remain extraordinarily skeptical and extremely wary about the nascent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.
While meeting President Isaac Herzog in Ankara on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he believed “this historic visit will be a turning point in relations between Turkey and Israel. Strengthening relations with the State of Israel has great value for our country.” He said he believed “the coming period will bring new opportunities for both regional and bilateral cooperation.”
Erdogan went on to call antisemitism “a crime against humanity,” saying “hate crimes continue to take place all over the world and we will continue to tackle xenophobia, racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
Herzog responded by saying he held “productive” talks. “This is a very important moment in relations between our countries, and I feel it is a great privilege for both of us to lay the foundations for the cultivation of friendly relations between our states and our peoples, and to build bridges that are critical for all of us,” he said.
“Our peoples’ relationship is an ancient one, with strong historical, religious and cultural roots. The long line of magnificent Jewish leaders, rabbis, poets, sages, merchants and entrepreneurs represents only part of the Jewish people’s history here in this land,” Herzog said.
“I believe that the relationship between our countries will be judged by deeds reflecting a spirit of mutual respect and will enable us to better confront the regional and global challenges that are common to us all.”
Herzog’s trip marks the highest-level visit by an Israeli official since former prime minister Ehud Olmert made the trip in 2008, and is seen as an important step toward rekindling the two countries’ long-floundering relationship. Herzog was greeted by Erdogan and an honor guard, as a band played the Israeli anthem for the first time since 2008. Herzog and his wife, Michal, were hosted by Erdogan for a state dinner.
So nice. Such apparent sweetness. How hopeful!
Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, of course, would be a good thing, with important strategic benefits for Israel. For example, it is important to ensure Turkish cooperation in, instead of opposition to, Israel’s gas export plans. Overall, a Jerusalem-Ankara détente would usefully enhance regional stability.
EXCEPT THAT it is hard to believe. Erdogan is a true-blue believing antisemite of the old school, who believes in classic antisemitic myths like the Protocols of the Elder of Zion (where Jews control the global banking and media conglomerates, etc.). He honestly hates Israel, and his preference is to lead a pan-Islamic coalition to crush Israel.
Erdogan’s state-controlled press has driven an aggressive, antisemitic and anti-Israel public discourse in Turkey, clearly aimed at delegitimizing Israel. (Will that now change? Israel should be watching this closely.)
Erdogan continues to lead anti-Israel campaigns at every opportunity, including the global assault on Israel regarding Gaza border riots and other conflicts with the Palestinians. His favorite accusation is Israeli “genocide” against the Palestinians, and his favorite Palestinians are Hamas leaders. Saleh al-Arouri, a top commander of Hamas’s military wing and the terror group’s deputy political chief, operates from Turkey.
At a summit that Erdogan summoned a few years ago in Istanbul of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, he libeled Israel with torture of Palestinian children “like the concentration camps during World War II, with methods that would put Nazis to shame.”
All the while, Turkey continues to considerably weaken the Western strategic alliance by problematic collaboration with Syria, Iran, China and Russia – despite Turkey’s NATO membership. (There is no mechanism for turfing Turkey out of the alliance).
On the nuclear issue, Erdogan has sided throughout with Iran, declaring Turkish support for Tehran’s “peaceful nuclear program” and voting repeatedly against American-initiated sanctions against Iran. Turkish banks openly cooperate with Iranian banks to circumvent Western sanctions. In 2012, Turkey blew the cover of an Israeli spy network in Iran. More recently Erdogan threatened Israel with war over gas fields in the Mediterranean.
At home, Erdogan has jailed more journalists, judges, generals and academics than any other country in the world, including China. He is building 40,000 new jail cells to handle the overload. He is creating an authoritarian system to suit his imperial ambitions, especially after the supposed “coup” attempt in Turkey several years ago (which may have been manufactured by Erdogan himself in order to justify this draconian crackdown).
Furthermore, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led a Turkish invasion of Jerusalem. He is investing tens of millions of dollars per year in Islamic missionary (dawah) activities, renovation of Muslim institutions, holiday handouts and social networking in eastern Jerusalem – glorifying terrorists and explicitly calling for violent resistance to Israel. Turkish-backed clerics and other radical Islamist actors have led troublemaking on the Temple Mount and other subversive activities.
The Turkish Consulate in Jerusalem and two Turkish quasi-governmental agencies (Mirasimiz and TIKA) are directly implicated in this activity; by their own admission, to the tune of over $40 million a year. Erdogan’s former chief of staff personally oversees much of this activity, which includes trips for youth to radical Islamic conferences in Turkey, and the busing to Jerusalem of posses of men and women (known as the Murabitun and Murabitat, respectively) who heatedly harass Jewish visitors to Har HaBayit (Temple Mount). As a result, Turkish flags today fly everywhere in eastern Jerusalem and prominently on the Temple Mount too.
The Turkish purpose is not at all innocuous. It is, rather, to weaken Israel’s hold in the holy city, and to bolster Erdogan’s claim to leadership of the Muslim world on a path to a global Islamic sultanate.
According to Jerusalem and Turkey experts, like David Koren and Eytan Hay Cohen Yanarocak of Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and Seth J. Frantzman of The Jerusalem Post, there has been significant erosion in the status of veteran mukhtars (Arab neighborhood leaders) and secular Palestinian leaders in eastern Jerusalem. Into the vacuum have stepped elements identified with Hamas, the northern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood in its wider context and especially Turkey.
While it is important not to exaggerate the Turkish threat, Erdogan’s interference in Jerusalem clearly needs to be checked. His incendiary activities in Israel’s capital touch the deepest chords of Israeli sovereignty in the eastern part of the city. At a minimum, the flow of Turkish money into Jerusalem must be blocked.
Israel knows why Erdogan is all of a sudden seeking photo-ops with the Israeli president (and, one assumes, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, sometime soon, too). It is because Turkey is in the dumps internationally, with the Biden administration and global business leaders shunning Turkey. The Turkish economy is in big trouble. Herzog specifically, and Israel more broadly, is Erdogan’s teudat hechsher, his koshering certificate, his badge of renewed respectability.
Israel should give this hechsher to Erdogan only if the Turkish dictator broadly cleans up his act.
I hope that the Prime Minister’s Office, National Security Council, Foreign Ministry and other Israeli security agencies overseeing the new attempt to patch things up with Turkey – are paying attention to all this with sufficient alacrity.
Erdogan not only needs to be handled cautiously and, yes, respectfully. He also needs to be cut down to size.
The writer is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and in the research department of Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum. His diplomatic, defense, political, and Jewish world columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.