Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government are currently engaged in a charm offensive directed at both Israel and the European Union. The attempt to repair their very frayed relations with Brussels and Jerusalem derives from concern in Ankara at the likely stance of the incoming Biden administration toward Turkey.
From Israel’s point of view, the response to Turkish overtures will depend on two considerations: First, their sincerity and the probable lifespan of any consequent rapprochement, given past experience; and second, the cost that any move back toward closer relations with Ankara might have on other burgeoning relationships in which Jerusalem is engaged.
Underlying both of these elements is the need for a core assessment of Turkish national strategy. Namely, is Turkish policy reactive and improvised and therefore subject to major alterations given shifts in circumstance, or is it set along clear lines, with a clear destination, and unlikely to be substantively diverted by momentary circumstance?
Why is Turkey concerned regarding Biden? One of the notable elements of the outgoing administration of Donald Trump was its indulgent attitude toward Ankara. The 2016-2020 period witnessed major Turkish military interventions in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Qatar, growing support for Hamas, and harassment of Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. But while clearly disruptive to US allies and any hopes for greater regional stability, most of this did not directly impact core US interests.
This led to a relatively indulgent attitude. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system resulted in the country’s removal from the F-35 program. But for the most part, Turkey found over the last half decade that it could antagonize Western allies and ignore the sovereignty of neighboring countries while facing little negative reaction from Washington.
This is set to change. President Biden himself has been outspoken in his criticism of Erdogan. In conversation with The New York Times editorial team in December, Biden said he was “concerned” about Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds, and its military cooperation with Russia. He said, “What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him [Erdogan] now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership… he has to pay a price.” Biden continued by saying the US should support the Turkish opposition “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”
Such sentiments are unambiguous. Biden’s appointments to his national security team have caused further concern in Turkey. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both been outspoken in their criticism of Turkish policy. (Blinken recently referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner.”) Brett McGurk, who will head Middle East policy at the National Security Council, is something of a bête noire in Ankara. McGurk is seen as the architect and main advocate of the US relationship with the Kurds in Syria, and hence in Turkish eyes as a supporter of the most worrying element of US Middle East policy. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was, as commander of CENTCOM from 2013, also deeply involved with the development of the relationship between the US and the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria.
Turkey’s actions over the last half decade have left it with few allies. In December, the European Union began to prepare limited sanctions against Turkish individuals in response to Ankara’s gas drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus. Turkish activities using proxies in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, and its exploitation of the Syrian refugee issue to pressure the EU have led to a deep sense of estrangement and suspicion in Europe.
With Israel, similarly, despite the formal reconciliation of 2016, relations have remained strained. Trade is steady. Intelligence cooperation reportedly continues. But Turkish domiciling of and support for Hamas, Turkey’s leader’s regular castigation of Israel, and Ankara’s activities in support of political Islam in Jerusalem remain areas of deep concern for Israel. As recently as May 2020, hopes for an improved atmosphere after an El Al cargo plane landed in Istanbul for the first time in a decade were dashed after Erdogan delivered a speech harshly critical of Israel.
So, in response to the concerns about Biden, Turkey is now seeking to repair relations with the EU and Israel. Tones have altered. French President Emmanuel Macron, whom Erdogan described in October as in need of “treatment” for his supposed attitudes to Muslims, received a friendly New Year’s greeting from Erdogan, expressing hopes for removed ties.
For Israel, the charm offensive has been yet more pronounced. Rumors of secret bilateral talks have been confirmed. Mesut Casin, Erdogan’s adviser on foreign affairs, told Voice of America in December, “If we see a green light, Turkey will open the embassy again and return our ambassador. Maybe in March we can restore full diplomatic relations again. Why not?” Erdogan, for his part, has said his “heart desires that we can move our relations with [Israel] to a better point.”
Most notably, an article in The Times of London this week claimed that evidence has emerged that Erdogan is now “reassessing” Turkey’s relations with Hamas. The article, citing reports in “Turkish media,” asserted that Turkey has ceased to give citizenship or long-term visas to Hamas members, and “in at least one case” has deported a Hamas member.
So how is Israel likely to react? First, while improved relations with Ankara would certainly be welcome, these are not currently an urgent necessity for Jerusalem.
Israel has forged ahead over the last half-decade in developing relations with Ankara’s rivals – in the UAE, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. In these relationships may be discerned the outline of a strategic alliance in a Middle East from which the US has partially withdrawn. What might Turkey offer by way of a substitute for the advance of these relations, given that trade relations in any case remain brisk between Ankara and Jerusalem, and Ankara’s ability to pose a threat via its relations with Hamas is very limited?
Only the very optimistic could believe in real strategic cooperation between Erdogan’s Turkey and Israel. Far more likely, the Turkish president would be happy to gain from the increased legitimacy afforded him by an improved atmosphere with the Jewish state during the difficult period of Biden’s accession. The improved atmosphere could then be ditched at a later date, when the tactical reasons for it no longer pertain. By taking Erdogan’s bait, however, Israel will damage its emergent connections with the four other countries mentioned above, for no lasting gain.
The reason why such an outcome is likely if Israel moves to normalize relations with Turkey is because Turkey is very clearly embarked on its own project in the emergent post-American Middle East, and it doesn’t include friendship with Israel.
This project involves a close alliance with Qatar, development of Islamist proxy forces alongside conventional ones, and the projection of Turkish power via these means in Libya, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia and Azerbaijan (so far). The Sunni Islamist component of this is as integral as is the Turkish nationalist one. Opposition to Israel and “Zionism” is hard-wired into it. For as long as Erdogan remains president, Turkish regional strategy will proceed along these tracks, perhaps pausing occasionally for tactical advantage. Israel should make its decisions regarding Turkey on the basis of this reality.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum