Barring a last-minute electoral shock, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set – as a result of Sunday’s runoff election – to rule Turkey for five more years.
Erdogan first came to power in Turkey in 2003, when George W. Bush was in office in the US, Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, Jacques Chirac in France, Tony Blair in Britain and Ariel Sharon in Israel.
That is an extraordinarily long time for one leader to dominate a democracy – for the first 11 years as prime minister and then as president. The world, therefore, should know what to expect from Erdogan. Except that it doesn’t, because Erdogan is nothing if not mercurial.
The Turkish leader went from pursuing membership in the EU and implementing EU-mandated reforms to becoming highly critical of the EU and implementing policies to harm it.
Erdogan’s mercurial and capricious nature
He went from initially pursuing a policy of engagement with the Kurds to adopting a hardline approach toward them. And he went from a stated “zero problems with neighbors” policy to a reality where Turkey was at strong odds with nearly all its neighbors, near and far.
Nowhere has Erdogan’s mercurial and capricious nature been more evident than in his ties with Israel. He has swung from a cool but not overtly hostile attitude toward Israel in the early days of his tenure, to a downright hostile and even antisemitic position toward the Jewish state for the bulk of his reign, to a more pragmatic approach today.
This raises the question: which Erdogan will Israel encounter as he embarks on yet another term, and how should Israel approach Turkey now that Erdogan has seemingly assured himself another five years in power?
Erdogan’s more pragmatic approach toward Israel – which over the last 18 months led to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations he had cut off and the return of an Israeli ambassador to Ankara whom he sent packing on two different occasions – is not the result of any significant change of heart.
Erdogan the Islamist has not suddenly seen the light and realized that Israel is not a curse in the Middle East but rather a blessing.
Instead, this change is the result of Erdogan’s changing perception of Turkey’s interests. When Erdogan thought that Turkey would best be served by being seen as the leader of the Islamic world, he charted a stridently anti-Israel policy, believing this would catapult him to that position.
When he felt the need to try and move closer to Washington, the West and even the United Arab Emirates after the Abraham Accords, he toned down the anti-Israel rhetoric and began rebuilding ties with Jerusalem.
Erdogan's reasons for moving toward Israel
The Turkish president had three primary interests in moving closer to Israel. The first had to do with economics – Turkey’s economy is flailing – and a hope that Israel someday might ship its natural gas to Europe through Turkey, which would be a major boon to the Turkish economy.
Secondly, Erdogan views Israel as a vehicle to help it break out of its present regional isolation. While Erdogan pursued neo-Ottoman dreams with his rapacious appetite extending from Syria to Jerusalem, Gaza, and Libya, new alliances were formed among various countries to keep him at bay: Israel-Greece-Cyprus, and Israel-UAE-Bahrain-Egypt. Better ties with Israel may help him fit in more comfortably with this new regional architecture, or at least feel less threatened by it.
Finally, overtures to Israel are a way of paving Turkey’s way back into Washington’s better graces. While Erdogan had good ties with former US President Donald Trump, his relationship with the Biden administration has been much more troubled. Israel – and the Jewish community in the US – have long been viewed in Ankara as capable of helping smooth things over in Washington.
Israel, too, has economic and strategic interests in continuing its rapprochement with Erdogan. In so doing, however, it must not sacrifice the strategic relationships it has developed with Cyprus and Greece. Furthermore, in dealing with Erdogan, Jerusalem needs to always keep in mind the Talmudic dictum kabdehu v’chashdehu (respect him and suspect him).
Respect Erdogan because he is the president of a big, proud, strong and important country in the region, yet suspect him because the Erdogan you meet today may not be the Erdogan you will come up against tomorrow.