Has Erdogan turned Turkey around? - opinion

The foreign policy moves of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the last two years have appeared quite revolutionary.

 Herzog is welcomed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on March 9. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Herzog is welcomed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on March 9.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

The foreign policy moves of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the last two years took the world by surprise. They appeared quite revolutionary; Erdogan tried simultaneously to mend fences with Turkey’s erstwhile antagonistic partners including the Arab Emirates, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he made attempts to curry favor with the EU and, most importantly, with the US.

These moves raise a lot of questions: to what extent are they genuine? To what extent might they be durable? Given his zigzagging past policies can their partners trust him? These questions bother especially Israel as in the past 20 years there were a lot of ups and downs in Erdogan’s positions.

Many Israeli observers are quite skeptical about the possibility of genuine rapprochement and longstanding strong relations. They cite the fact that the AKP has had deep ties with Hamas; that Erdogan himself has ideological affinities with Muslim Brotherhood’s organizations; that he kept lashing out at Israel, labeling it as a terrorist state; and that both countries have developed strategic relations and priorities with other partners making the restoring of mutual trust that much more difficult. Notwithstanding these concerns, one may assess that this time the shift is aimed to be a strategic one.

Considered charismatic, Erdogan – as in Max Weber theoretical observations on such leaders – is likely to initiate strategic shifts if this suits his interests trusting that the public will follow him on such decisions. Erdogan’s main motivations for such a shift this time are the interrelated economic and political exigencies, namely the severe economic situation to which Turkey has deteriorated in the last few years and the fall in his own popularity, both risking his topping the presidential elections of 2023.

It should be pointed out that Erdogan has been pinning great hopes on these elections that coincide with the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish republic. Hence, his willingness to take bold moves for achieving this goal.

 TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters during a ceremony in Istanbul, last year. (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS) TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters during a ceremony in Istanbul, last year. (credit: UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

The steps that he has already initiated prove that there is a beginning of the turning around of the ship. This is observable in the regional and international arenas and it might also spill into the domestic one as well.

On the regional level Erdogan initiated a wide range of conciliatory moves towards his erstwhile rivals, one of which was Israel. Thus, he extended his hand toward the Gulf emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia with which he has had adverse relations because of different ideological, economic and political reasons. Turkey’s isolation that resulted from these tense relations has had a negative impact on the country. Accordingly, Erdogan was willing to walk to Canossa (i.e., make a symbolic act of penance) in order to restore these relations and ensure his own survival on the helm of power.

Even more remarkable is Erdogan’s U-turn toward Israel. Interestingly, unlike in the past, this time it is Turkey that is courting Israel and it is Erdogan who is signaling and personally leading the change through his speeches and different amicable gestures. This is the same Erdogan who used to lash out at Israel for domestic ideological and political goals, who is now speaking about the important strategic relations with it.

ANOTHER TWIST of history is that, while in the past relations with Arab countries were a cause of rupture with Israel, now Israeli-Arab relations are the conduit to Turkey’s rapprochement with Jerusalem. The two opposite examples are the 1973 Arab–Israeli war which was the cause for the strain in Turkish-Israeli relations and the 2020 Abraham accords which has had the opposite effect.

Turkey’s key motivation for the rapprochement with Israel is its self-serving hope to engage with it on the lucrative gas project. It would be noted that Erdogan’s gestures of good will toward Israel gained momentum following the US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of his support of the EastMed gas pipeline in early 2022. That project, which was initiated in 2016, was a tripartite venture of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus and gained the support of former US president Donald Trump. With the latest turn of events Erdogan was hoping to kill a few birds with one stone: Building this gas pipeline with Israel, distancing Israel from its allies Greece and Cyprus and improving relations with the US that had suffered severe setback of late.

To regain Israel’s trust, Erdogan initiated a series of intensive gestures on the political, cultural and diplomatic levels. These included the more positive declarations on Israel, the lavish ceremonial reception of President Isaac Herzog, the reestablishment of ties between the two intelligence organizations the Mossad and MIT, and the revival of ties between Turkish and Israeli universities.

The most important signal as far as Israel is concerned was the toning down of the attacks against Israel regarding the Palestinian issue. This was proved during this year’s Ramadan events in al-Aqsa Mosque, where, while criticizing Israel, Erdogan refrained from using harsh terms against it. Another very important signal that has yet to prove its seriousness and longevity is the declared intention to stop Turkey’s support for Hamas.

If winning the elections is Erdogan’s foremost goal, it might not be surprising that he would initiate outstanding moves on the domestic level as well. These might be launching reconciliatory gestures towards the Kurds prior to the elections, such as for example releasing Kurdish political prisoners or granting certain cultural rights. After all, it was the Kurdish vote which helped him reach power in the first rounds of elections.

Clearly, for Erdogan’s strategic turnabout to succeed there is need for cooperation with partners, and herein lies future challenges: will his erstwhile rivals and adversaries trust his moves? To what extent will they be willing to make their own reciprocal strategic shift? Of course, there are big differences between these new/old partners. And while, for example, the rapprochement with the Arab Emirates was quite quick and rewarding, the mending of fences with Israel might be more problematic and take longer time due to Erdogan’s deep ideological convictions regarding the Palestinians and the years of alienation between the two countries. For Israel, the litmus test for Turkey’s genuine change towards it will be its stance on a possible new Palestinian crisis. If that test succeeds then, and only then, will Jerusalem be able to implement its own strategic shift.

The writer is senior research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University and author of The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.