Into the Fray: Entente with Turkey – like lipstick on a pig?

The smart thing for Israel to do is to let Turkey’s Islamist president stew in his own juices and suffer the consequences of his own hubris

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Once the Russian threat has passed, Turkish Islamists... will resume their old ways, including the bitterly anti-Israel dimension.
Daniel Pipes, National Review, December 20.
[Israelis] have no conscience, no honor, no pride. Those who condemn Hitler day and night have surpassed Hitler in barbarism.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, July 19, 2014
Lipstick on a pig: An unsuccessful attempt to make something ugly look more attractive Macmillan Dictionary
There is no way to know for sure how the prospective rapprochement reportedly emerging between Israel and Turkey will play out. It might turn out well – but that would be an extremely implausible outcome, defying all probability, evidence and common sense – a stunning victory for unfounded optimism over sober assessment of prevailing reality.
Turkey: Only geography unchanged
The talk of enhanced Turco-Israeli relations has gathered pace against the backdrop of the deepening distress Turkish president Erdogan finds himself in, particularly in the wake of the sharp deterioration in his country’s relationship with Moscow, following the downing of a Russian plane by Turkish forces near the Syrian border last month.
Beyond the immediate feel-good factor that the prospect of a long longed for entente with a once valued ally might engender, it is difficult to understand Israeli willingness – never mind alacrity – to pursue this policy.
In the past, I have staunchly supported a Turco-Israeli alliance. But that was when Turkey was a secular, Western-oriented Kemalist state. I even co-authored an article with the former deputy chief of staff of the Turkish armed forces Gen. Çevik Bir, extolling the virtues of such a strategic partnership. (Middle East Quarterly, 2002) However, much has changed since the ascent to power of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. This has been particularly marked over the last decade, in which Turkey has been moving steadily toward an Islamic theocracy. It has become a very different country from what it was during the heyday of Turco-Israeli amity in the 1990s, of which Bir was arguably the major architect.
Indeed, as I pointed out in a previous column, (“Turkish tantrums,” September 10, 2011): “The loss of Turkey as a strategic ally is a huge blow. But it is a result of what Turkey has become, not what Israel has – or has not – done.” It would be futile and foolish to believe otherwise, for virtually the only thing that has remained unchanged in Turkey since the ascent of Erdogan’s party to power is its geographical location.
‘Only a matter of time…’
Turkey today is a country with very different interests from those in the past. Few, if any, of them are concomitant with those of Israel. This is likely to remain unchanged as long as Erdogan remains in power.
The sea change in the country is graphically illustrated by the fate of Bir himself.
Slated in 1999 as a possible candidate for the presidency of the country, in 2012 he was arrested along with 30 other high ranking officers for their role in forcing the then-Turkish government, led by prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and his fundamentalist Islamic Welfare Party, out of office.
Although he was released almost two years later, the episode does underscore the far-reaching ideo-political metamorphosis Turkey has undergone. This is not likely to be a fleeting feature.
As Ariel Ben Solomon writes in a Jerusalem Post analysis (“Israel-Turkey thaw may be only temporary,” December 22.) “... Erdogan’s Islamist ideology and coziness with radical groups such as Hamas are likely to get in the way sooner or later... [H]is AKP government’s rhetoric against Israel, its harboring of Hamas terrorists and efforts to get its hand into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, may quiet down for a bit if a deal is reached, but it is only a matter of time before such anti-Israel actions return.”
Despite the recent expulsion, at Israel’s behest, of Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s senior representative in Istanbul, well-informed sources report that “Erdogan clarified to close associates he had no intention of closing Hamas’s offices in Turkey and would not stop his financial and moral support of Hamas, as Israel requested.”
Poking the bear?
I differ with former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman on a range of topics, but I find it difficult to disagree with much of his critical assessment last week of the prospective entente: “Opportunism does not replace a smart and considered policy. Erdogan leads a radical Islamic regime, the Turks deal with ISIS... and are at odds with Russia.”
He warned: “The agreement with Turkey has not yet been concluded, but the diplomatic damage is already done... We have made considerable efforts in recent years to establish ties with Greece and Cyprus and have reached important agreements with them... [The agreement with Turkey] will harm them.” He added, with some justification: “It will also harm our ties with Egypt, because I have difficulty seeing Erdogan giving up his demands regarding Gaza,” which, given the tensions between the Sisi regime and Hamas, is something Cairo is likely to frown on.
But perhaps the most significant ramifications are liable to be those regarding Russia, with whom relations recently have assumed particular importance following the deployment of the Russian military in Syria. For Israel, cordial coordination with Moscow is of cardinal importance for maintaining the IDF’s operational capability in the Syrian- Lebanese theater. However, given Putin’s ire with Ankara, following the shooting down of the Russian warplane, it is difficult to imagine anything likely to give more offense, than Israel throwing Erdogan a lifeline and allowing him to wriggle out of hardships his wrangle with Moscow has wrought on him.
The only appropriate apology
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the initiative is the persistent reports that Israel has agreed to pay $20 million as compensation to the families of the victims who died aboard the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara.
As readers will recall, the ship was attempting to break the legal quarantine of Hamas-controlled Gaza in May 2010, and the casualties were incurred when Israeli naval commandos sent to intercept the vessel were compelled to use lethal force to prevent a frenzied crowd aboard the ship, from disemboweling them.
Initial Israeli outrage, and rightful rejection, of this scandalous demand seems to have withered away into ignominious acceptance.
Indeed it was none other than today’s defense minister, then deputy-prime minister and minister for strategic affairs, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, who (rightly) dismissed any such possibility out of hand (August 17, 2011): “God forbid we apologize. National pride is not just something people say on the street... it has strategic significance. If Erdogan goes around afterward and says that he brought us to our knees, he will appear as a regional leader.... He won’t leave it alone, even after we apologize.”
Sadly it seems much of this robust and righteous defiance has since been eroded.
Indeed, the only apology that should be forthcoming in this sorry episode is an apology from Turkey to Israel for allowing Turkish citizens and a Turkish vessel to take part in what was an endeavor to violate a legal cordon of a terrorist enclave, resulting in the severe wounding of a friendly country’s forces sent to maintain that cordon.
Interestingly, among Erdogan’s opponents in Turkey, views not overly dissimilar prevail.
Thus, former foreign minister Hikmet Cetin, from the Kemalist opposition Republican People’s Party, told one major Turkish daily, that although the Mavi Marmara incident was unfortunate and Israel could have done more to resolve the issue, the ship should have heeded warnings and, in fact, should have never set sail in the first place.
(Jerusalem Post, December 20).
Difficult to decipher
Accordingly, it is difficult to decipher the logical code that drives the government’s decision to engage Turkey at the present moment – particularly in light of the dubious political payoffs and probable political penalties.
Some government ministers have attempted to put an upbeat spin on the initiative. Thus, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz declared that normalizing ties with Turkey had huge importance, suggesting that this would help develop the Leviathan offshore gas field and bring international energy companies back to Israel to look for more gas fields. (Jerusalem Post, December 20) He added, with admirable optimism: “I think that there is a serious, meaningful chance for thawing and normalizing relations between Israel and Turkey.”
However, such optimism could well be misplaced. For even if there were persuasive grounds for the belief that absent a far-reaching regime change, Turkey could be counted on as a long-term, reliable ally, there are other reasons for caution, not least Russo-Israeli relations.
Thus Brandon Friedman, of Tel Aviv University, pointed out, Russia has demonstrated that it vigilantly defends its share of the European natural gas market. Accordingly, “Israel would do well to take into account Russia’s commercial interests before it decides to export natural gas through Turkey to Europe.”
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, is even more adamant – for different reasons. He cautions: “Because a gas pipeline renders Israel hostage to Turkey into the longrange future, this looks like an imprudent step...,” and urges that “however tempting an Israel-Turkey gas pipeline may appear, Americans [presumably as well-meaning allies of Israel] should advise and work against such a step.”
Wrong move; wrong time
There are of course significant elements within Turkey that would genuinely welcome a long-term resurrection of the strategic ties with Israel and understand the benefits that would accrue to both sides.
However, as long as the Islamist sentiments of the Erdogan-led regime dominate, these elements will never set the tone. The only chance of them coming to power is by discrediting the policies of the current AKP government and by magnifying rather than mitigating its failures and shortcomings.
In many ways, these policies are in shambles.
Indeed, as former Kemalist foreign minister Cetin noted acerbically, Erdogan’s much-vaunted foreign policy of “zero problems” has failed miserably: “We started off with a ‘Zero problems with neighbors’ policy.
Now we have no neighbors left. Turkey is isolated in the region.”
Accordingly, any initiative that is likely to mitigate Turkey’s growing isolation is equally likely to shore up Erdogan’s regime and commensurately likely to further distance his rivals (and Israel’s potential allies) from power. For Israel, therefore, the smart thing to do would be to let Erdogan stew in his own juices and suffer the consequences his hubris has brought upon himself.
It is the smart thing to do because, not only will it prevent tensions with prospective allies, it will promote the political fortunes of Erdogan’s adversaries, who have a greater affinity for cementing durable relations with the Jewish state.
Like lipstick on a pig?
As mentioned, the current state of relations with Ankara has very little to do with what Israel has done, but everything to do with what Turkey has become. And Turkey will remain what it has become as long as Erdogan remains at the helm.
It would be a grave mistake to underestimate Erdogan as an adversary, and an even greater one to trust him as an ally.
He has shown great courage and force of personality, as well dour commitment to his Islamist beliefs. From being imprisoned in 1999, he rose meteorically, leading his newly formed party to power, becoming prime minister within three years, and within a decade, president, transforming Turkey and neutralizing the formidable Turkish military as a political factor. With all his flaws, he is a man to be reckoned with.
Little could be more counter-productive, from Israel’s point of view, than giving him breathing space to resist his adversaries. For unless he is replaced, Turkey will remain what it has become – and any rapprochement with it, however upbeat the spin, will be little more than putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (