In a virtual discussion held by the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), Turkish scholar and former politician Aykan Erdemir said Jews should be wary of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s outreach efforts towards Jews and Israel.
After nearly two decades of increasingly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, Erdoğan has begun making conciliatory gestures towards Jews and Israel, surprising many in the West.
In her introduction to the Jan. 5 webcast, Sarah Stern—the founder and president of EMET—spoke about Erdogan’s Dec. 22 meeting with Turkey’s Jewish leaders, members of the Alliance of Rabbis of Islamic State and the chief rabbi of Russia at his palace in Ankara. During the meeting, Erdoğan made conciliatory statements about Israel and spoke against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
“Turkey’s relationship with Israel is vital towards the stability of our region,” Stern quoted Erdoğan, and “we must all work together to strengthen peace and stability in the Middle East. We are ready to improve our cooperation and make better use of our potential.”
Turkey’s government-aligned news outlet Daily Sabah, also quoted Erdoğan saying: “I value our renewed dialogue with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.”
The statements are an about-face from the Turkish leader’s record, in which as recently as last year he said about Israel that “they’re murderers, to the point that they kill children who are 5 or 6 years old. They are only satisfied by sucking their blood. It is in their nature.”
Erdoğan also lashed out at the United States for its support of Israel during the 11-day conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in May, saying that it had blood on its hands—statements condemned by U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price as “reprehensible and anti-Semitic.”
Stern asked whether this change of character has anything to do with Turkey’s recent economic outlook, including a 36 percent inflation rate and troubled relationships with other nations in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
‘Serving Erdoğan’s transnational Islamist interests’
Erdemir, Turkey program senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, pointed out that Erdoğan has previously made gestures of goodwill towards the Turkish Jewish community and made appeals towards Israel only to punctuate these gestures by more outbursts of anti-Semitism.
He compared it to a publicly traded stock that appears promising but never increases in price.
“And with Erdogan, we have to look at his fundamentals, and what I mean by that, is his core values, his background, where he comes from, what is his worldview, what is his ethos?” said Erdemir. He also pointed out that last year’s attack on Israel also came shortly after he had reached out to the Jewish state.
“How many times does one need to be misled before deciding, ‘You know what, I don’t think Erdoğan is capable of change,” he said.
Especially among Washington policymakers and among some scholars, according to Erdemir, Erdoğan’s recent statements have rekindled “wishful thinking” that Turkey—a member of NATO—could once again become a counterweight in the Middle East against Russia and Iran as it was during the Cold War.
“Today’s Turkey is basically Erdogan’s Turkey, and Turkey’s assets, resources and institutions are no longer dedicated to serving Turkey’s national interests or Turkish people’s interests. On the contrary, they are all subservient to serving Erdogan’s transnational Islamist interests—his Muslim Brotherhood aligned supremacist ideology’s interests,” said Erdemir.
It’s best not to be naive about the relationship, he added, as long as Erdoğan remains in power.
Turkey grapples with economic and geopolitical realities
The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned Turkey-based entities and individuals for financing Hamas, the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force and other terrorist organizations at least seven times, which is the product of meticulous research and evidence gathering.
The Muslim Brotherhood also established its headquarters in Istanbul after it was ousted from Egypt.
“So one could argue that Erdoğan’s understanding of an outreach is mostly about sweet talk, but it’s not necessarily accompanied by the work that it will require,” said Erdemir.
He suspected that this new outreach was the result of what he called two bankruptcies. One was that of Turkish diplomacy, which originally promoted its isolationism after its Muslim Brotherhood allies failed in the Arab Spring of 2011; and the other because of a financial bankruptcy that resulted from this isolation, with Turkish companies being pushed out of other parts of the Middle East due to its alliance with the Islamic Brotherhood.
With Arab countries now making economic agreements with Israel, Turkey finds itself isolated in the region and losing export markets.
One hopeful footnote, Erdemir said, was that even during the years of the worst relationship between Israel and Turkey, and declining trade between Turkey and Arab countries, trade between Turkey and Israel has grown due to the strong people-to-people and trade ties between the two nations.
At least publicly, the economic and geopolitical realities are forcing Erdoğan to change his hardline positions towards Israel and its allied Arab nations.
Erdoğan dug himself into an economic whole over the years of his rule, according to Erdemir, by artificially forcing the interest rates low and burning through Turkey’s foreign currency reserves to support its lira. Meanwhile, the lira continued to be devalued as inflation rose and Turkey is now considered a high risk for foreign investment. With this in mind, Erdoğan may believe that Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can get him bail him out.
“My guess is it will not be enough, meaning there are two flaws in this proposition,” said Erdemir. “On the one hand, let’s say some light improvement to bilateral and multilateral relations will not be enough to say the markets, and we know that Erdoğan ultimately always comes short when it comes to such rapprochement attempts.”
Eredemir noted that every year when Erdoğan comes for the U.N. General Assembly, he is criticized for his anti-Semitism and anti-Western bias. Therefore, he tries to reach out to the American Jewish organizations for publicity.
Last year, no American Jewish organization agreed to meet with him. Instead, the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), which has close ties to Erdoğan, including some very close relatives on the committee, announced that it signed a joint declaration with the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce to join forces against the BDS campaign and to support the Abraham Accords.
While some were impressed, Erdemir said he was puzzled knowing that Turkey, Iran and Hamas were some of the most vocal critics of the accords, and Turkey had, just before the declaration, sponsored pro-BDS event in Turkey.
Within 24 hours, TASC withdrew from the joint declaration, saying that there was improper consensus for the declaration and that the deputy foreign minister who was photographed holding the declaration at its signing didn’t know what was in the declaration.
“Now, it’s all up to you whether you believe this or not, but I think this is yet the most concrete example of how Erdoğan will not be embarrassed to walk back—within 24 hours—all his commitments,” said Erdemir, “and how this is almost always just window dressing or a publicity stunt.”