The official welcoming ceremony for President Isaac Herzog at the presidential palace in Ankara included a military band playing “Hatikvah,” a 21-gun salute and an honor guard of soldiers in dress uniforms. The host, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, spoke of Herzog’s historic visit being a “turning point in ties between Turkey and Israel.” Renowned for his hardline anti-Israel statements, Erdogan said that “developing relations between Turkey and Israel is of great value for our countries.” It seemed too good to be true.
Herzog’s welcome was the first of its kind for fifteen years. Former president Shimon Peres visited in 2007, during the lead-up to the Annapolis Middle East peace conference, and Peres, who was always a master at projecting conspicuous optimism, talked about Israel and Turkey sharing “the same vision for the Middle East.”
In 2005, then-prime minister Erdogan visited Israel, bringing along a delegation of leading Turkish businesspeople to bolster trade and economic ties. Erdogan was also eager to strengthen defense cooperation and carve out a role for Ankara in Israel-Arab peacemaking. During that visit, Erdogan declared antisemitism to be a “crime against humanity.”
The following year, I participated in a meeting between foreign ministers Tzipi Livni and Abdullah Gul. Emblematic of the period, Gul praised Israel’s sensitive handling of tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Then it was said that Erdogan’s and Gul’s brand of political Islamism was the cousin of European Christian Democracy, and that the ideology of their Justice and Development Party (AKP) was no obstacle to good relations between Jerusalem and Ankara. It was not to be. In 2008, amidst Turkey’s attempt to mediate a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, Operation Cast Lead was launched against Hamas in Gaza and relations with Ankara deteriorated badly, Erdogan erroneously believing that then prime minister Ehud Olmert, whom he had just met, deliberately misled him about the IDF operation. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Turkish leader famously confronted Peres, walking off their shared stage in protest.
The 2010 Mavi Marmara incident accentuated the crisis, Erdogan condemned the Israeli navy’s interception of the Gaza flotilla as state terrorism. Ankara followed up by further downgrading diplomatic ties and suspending military cooperation. In 2012, the Washington Post reported that Turkey helped Iran to uncover Israel’s agents in that country and a year later Erdogan was declaring Zionism itself a crime against humanity.
In this reality, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu forged new multi-faceted partnerships, bilateral and trilateral, with Turkey’s East Mediterranean rivals Greece and Cyprus.
Seeking to allay Israeli-Turkish discord, in 2013 President Barack Obama brokered a deal: Netanyahu expressing regret for any errors that could have led to loss of life in the Mavi Marmara interception and agreeing to compensate the families of the ten dead Turks; Erdogan dropping war crimes charges against Israeli military personnel. The détente was short-lived, with Operation Protective Edge in 2014 bringing about a new deterioration, Erdogan accusing Israel of attempting systematic genocide of Palestinians.
In 2016, there was a further effort to normalize relations with both sides ratifying a six-point agreement. But, any progress was ephemeral, Erdogan responding furiously to America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, declaring a three-day period of national mourning, expelling Israel’s ambassador, and instigating and hosting an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to denounce America and Israel.
Like political Islamists elsewhere, Turkey’s president has espoused anti-Jewish prejudice with the US State Department condemning his antisemitic comments. Erdogan implied that protesters against his protracted rule were associated with the seed of Israel and the interest-rate lobby. He described Israelis as making women crawl on the ground and being murderers of six-year-old babies.
For many, this sort of demagoguery was antithetical to the historic relationship. Although Turkey voted against the 1947 UN partition proposal calling for the establishment of a Jewish state, two years later it recognized Israel, becoming the first Muslim majority country to do so.
Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, attached special significance to ties with Turkey, seeing them as part of the periphery doctrine that sought to counter the hostility of Israel’s Arab neighbors by cultivating strong relations with pro-western nations on the Middle East’s periphery – Turkey, pre-revolutionary Iran and imperial Ethiopia. Yet, Israel’s contacts with Turkey always had their ups and downs, particularly as Ankara responded to periodic escalations in the Arab-Israel conflict.
When I joined Israel’s Foreign Ministry in the 1990s, it was the relationship’s “golden age”: Turkey exemplified how a Muslim majority country could have excellent ties with the Jewish state. From the hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey, to the Turkish Air Force’s joint exercises with IAF in Turkish skies, the two American allies enjoyed a robust partnership.
However, under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s traditional Western orientation was transposed by a new Middle Eastern identity. During the Arab Spring, Erdogan presented Turkey as the Moslem democratic model for the Arab world. Touring North Africa in 2011, he received rapturous welcomes in countries that had just deposed longtime dictators. However, being the standard bearer of a populist Arab revolution wasn’t conducive to maintaining good ties with Israel.
Ultimately, Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood sympathies harmed Turkey’s ties with Arab countries, where many were apprehensive about his perceived neo-Ottomanism. From the original goal of zero problems with neighbors, Turkey was having difficult relations with them all, Israel included.
Erdogan’s affinity for Hamas creates obstacles to any Israel-Turkey reconciliation and heightens Israel’s reluctance to see greater Turkish involvement in Gaza reconstruction. Despite Ankara’s commitment to the contrary, Hamas operatives continue orchestrating terrorism from Turkish soil.
The issue of Jerusalem is also sensitive. Erdogan aspires for a Turkish role, as demonstrated by his forceful response to the relocation of the American embassy. For its part, Israel is uneasy about Turkish activity around the city’s Moslem holy sites and support for local agitators.
Vehement anti-Israelism has been so much a part of Erdogan’s political persona that many see its abeyance as strictly temporary, expecting a resurgence with the next inevitable outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence or as a domestic political tool to energize the AKP base.
My INSS colleague Remi Daniel believes that because of the ubiquitous anti-Israel attitudes in contemporary Turkish public discourse, paradoxically Erdogan alone has the stature to successfully deliver Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. Those interested in healthier ties need to hope, in contrast to his past practice, that Turkey’s strongman now persists in his espoused goal of rebooting the relationship.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.