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Israeli President Isaac Herzog, at left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a press conference in Ankara on March 9, 2022Yavuz Ozden/dia images via Getty Images
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Turkey Finds Israel Useful Again

After two decades of manic-depressive relations, Erdogan wants to give the Jewish state another spin

by
Ofra Bengio
March 14, 2022
Yavuz Ozden/dia images via Getty Images
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, at left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a press conference in Ankara on March 9, 2022Yavuz Ozden/dia images via Getty Images

At the end of December 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted a delegation of rabbis from all over the Islamic world, as well as from Russia. In that meeting, Erdogan stated that relations with Israel were “vital for the security and stability of the region,” and described both antisemitism and hostility toward Islam as “a crime against humanity.” Considering that for the past decade, Erdogan had lashed out at Israel repeatedly while employing antisemitic tropes against it, the meeting raised eyebrows. In order to understand the change in rhetoric, and whether it was a mere tactical move or more strategic and long term, it is important to examine relations between Turkey and Israel in a broader historical context.

The relationship between Turkey and Israel reflects ideological, political, military, regional, and international changes that have taken place in Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in its two decades of rule. The first decade was quite successful economically, politically, and diplomatically. The second witnessed an ongoing deterioration that is reaching its nadir today.

Though the AKP is formally the governing body of the state, in reality it has become more of a one-man show. Hence it is important to analyze Erdogan’s worldview, his motivations, and his political ambitions. Upon coming to power in 2003 as prime minister, Erdogan set up the following goals: first, to prove to the world that Islam and democracy can coexist and that Turkey could become the model for other Muslim countries; second, to solve many of Turkey’s chronic economic problems, as he managed to do when he was mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s; third, to undertake sweeping domestic changes, including solving the Kurdish problem, in order to neutralize the military and facilitate Turkey’s entrance into the European Union; and fourth, to diversify Turkey’s foreign relations by leading a more independent policy vis-a-vis the West, opening up to Arab countries, and assuming the leadership role of the Muslim and Turkic world.

This general political demeanor may explain the fact that in Erdogan’s early period, relations with Israel were quite cordial, illustrated by his journey to the Jewish state in early May 2005 and his visit to Yad Vashem. During his trip, Erdogan stated that his aim was to strengthen economic relations with Israel and serve as a peace broker with the Palestinians. In fact, what facilitated the visit was Israel’s decision in February 2005 to withdraw from Gaza, which took place later in the summer of that year. Two years later, Shimon Peres became the first Israeli president to address the Turkish parliament.

Another positive aspect of relations was Erdogan’s attempt to mediate a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid a visit to Turkey in December 2008 to promote negotiations. But two days later, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza in order to stop missile attacks against Israeli civilians. This put an end to the negotiations and initiated a straining of relations with Ankara. Erdogan felt slighted that Olmert did not notify him of the pending operation, and later described the operation itself as a “crime against humanity.”

By the end of Erdogan’s first decade in power, relations between the two countries began to deteriorate further still. One major cause was the process of “depoliticizing” the Turkish military, which reached its peak in 2009-10. Until that time, the army was considered the most powerful institution in the country as well as the guardian of secularism. Erdogan thus considered it an obstacle to greater power. And it was during the 1990s, when the power of the Turkish military was at its apex, that strong strategic relations were established with Israel. With the waning of the military’s political power, strategic relations with Israel suffered a setback as well.

This process coincided not only with Cast Lead in Gaza but also the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, when a Turkish-sponsored flotilla attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, resulting in the deaths of 10 pro-Palestinian activists and the wounding of 10 Israeli soldiers.

Connected to the weakening of the military was the accelerating trend of Islamization in the Turkish public sphere, orchestrated by Erdogan, who was motivated by his upbringing and personal ideological convictions. During his teenage years, Erdogan studied Islam in the pious Imam Hatip school. In politics, too, he was linked early on to Islamist, anti-Western, and antisemitic parties. As mayor of Istanbul, his tense relations with Turkish political and military elites burst out into the open. In one of his public talks, he quoted an Islamist poem stating that “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” This seemingly harmless recitation cost him a four-month prison sentence between March and July of 1999, his mayoral term, and his right to hold political office again (the ban was later annulled). It is in this light that Erdogan’s Islamization of the country and his troubled relations with the secular elite should be understood.

As prime minister, Erdogan started his Islamization process very cautiously, so as not to antagonize the military or the EU straight away. But the slow, plodding Islamization of the country in his first decade gave way to a rapid intensification in the second. This domestic process was buttressed by his ambition to achieve certain goals in foreign policy: to compete with Iran for geopolitical predominance in the Muslim world; to back Muslim Brotherhood organizations wherever they existed, most importantly Hamas in Gaza; and to present Turkey as the champion of Palestine and al-Aqsa.

This shift turned Israel into an undeclared enemy of Turkey. Erdogan’s novel discovery was that he could turn the Jewish state into a propaganda target for his own self-aggrandizement, mobilizing Turkish nationalist and religious sentiments and diverting attention from problems at home. He was thus following in the footsteps of the infamous 20th-century Arab leaders who had posed as the defenders of the Palestinian cause in order to fend off domestic enemies and gain popular support at home. More frequently now, Erdogan started to use very harsh rhetoric against Israel in his public speeches. His most common refrains were that Zionism is a crime against humanity, that Israel is a terrorist and apartheid state, and that it commits genocide against the Palestinians. The media, now under his thumb, followed his lead.

The Turkish government in this period also initiated or supported various anti-Zionist demonstrations and anti-Israeli TV dramas, the distribution of Mein Kampf in Turkish, and open opposition to Israel in international forums. Most importantly, it allowed the establishment of a Hamas branch in Turkey in 2012 and began harboring Hamas leaders such as Salih al-Aruri, who was given a green light to organize terrorist attacks against Israel from Turkish territory. According to the Israeli Security Agency (Shabak), Hamas’ Istanbul headquarters and operatives have directed hundreds of terror attacks and attempted attacks in Israel and the West Bank. Furthermore, Erdogan and the Turkish media circulated all manner of conspiracy theories according to which Israel was, to take just one example, responsible for the overthrow in 2013 of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi. Another conspiracy theory blamed Israel for attempts to establish “Greater Kurdistan.”

Following the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey downgraded relations with Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador in September 2011. In 2013, President Barack Obama pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into making a phone call to Erdogan and offering an apology and compensation, in exchange for a restoration of full diplomatic ties and the removal of all Turkish war crime charges against Israeli military personnel.

It took another three years for the reconciliation to happen; in November 2016, the two countries exchanged ambassadors again. But the normalization was short-lived, ending abruptly in May 2018 with Turkey’s expulsion of Israel’s ambassador again and the recalling of the Turkish ambassador. This time, the impetus was the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Indeed, Erdogan had turned Jerusalem into both a personal issue and a Turkish national issue. Speaking in the Turkish parliament, he stated: “In this city, which we had to leave in tears during the First World War, it is still possible to come across traces of the Ottoman resistance. So Jerusalem is our city, a city from us.” Linking this to the Palestinian issue, he added, “We consider it an honor on behalf of our country and nation to express the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people on every platform, with whom we have lived for centuries.”

On another occasion, Erdogan warned Israelis directly: “Those who think they own Jerusalem better know that tomorrow they will not even be able to hide behind trees.”

Such rhetoric consists of a combination of genuinely felt Islamism and pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli convictions, and the opportunist’s commitment to his own self-aggrandizement and the longevity of his popularity and rule. Erdogan’s turn on Israel thus tracks with his ties more general slide toward authoritarianism at home and expansionism abroad.

For most of this period, Israeli leaders and the media chose to stay relatively mum on Erdogan’s war of words. But after Erdogan blasted the U.S. move on Jerusalem, Netanyahu decided to hit back, calling Erdogan an “antisemitic dictator.” Touching on an especially sensitive Turkish nerve, he said: “Erdogan, the occupier of Northern Cyprus, whose army massacres women and children in Kurdish villages, inside and outside Turkey—should not preach to Israel.”

Erdogan was motivated by ideological tenets that led him in the opposite direction of Ataturk: neo-Ottomanism, Islamism, and regional expansionism.

For many years, Israel walked on a tightrope in regard to its relations with Turkey, which for a long time was one of only two Muslim countries (together with Iran) that recognized Israel and established diplomatic relations with it. But this dependency began to weaken following Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 and the 1991 Madrid conference, both of which opened new opportunities for Israel in the region and the wider world.

With the precipitous deterioration of relations with Turkey by 2010, Israel initiated its own strategic shift, which included bolstering political, economic, and trade relations with non-Muslim countries on Turkey’s periphery: Relations were upgraded with Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. The fact that Greece and Cyprus were longtime Turkish adversaries made the pivot even more alarming for Ankara.

The strength of the triangular Israel-Greece-Cyprus relationship of the past decade has been illustrated by frequent mutual visits of heads of state and senior officials, joint military training, friendly rhetoric, and cooperation in the field of gas exploration. In January 2020, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus ratified the EastMed project for an undersea pipeline, meant to carry gas from new offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to continental Europe. Netanyahu described the deal as “an alliance of great importance” that would bolster regional stability. The exclusion of Turkey from the deal further aggravated Ankara’s relations with all three countries. (In January 2022, the Biden administration informed the EastMed partners that it no longer supported the project, dealing a death blow to the pipeline.)

The Abraham Accords that Israel signed with the UAE and Bahrain in September 2020 also aroused Turkish concerns. Ankara accused the two Gulf Arab states of supporting Israel against the Palestinians and hosted Hamas leaders in response. Still more irritating for the Turkish government was new cooperation on energy resources between Israel and Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and the UAE.  

Taken together, these developments changed the balance of power between Israel and Turkey to the detriment of the latter. It was now Turkey that appeared isolated due to general malaise in various domestic and foreign matters, symbolized by the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016. Whether real or premeditated by Erdogan himself, the coup triggered widespread purges of real and imagined enemies. It also tightened Erdogan’s grip on Turkish institutions including the judiciary, the parliament, and the media. By mid-2021, his own popularity and that of the AKP more generally hit an all-time low. A September poll showed that Erdogan’s approval rating fell from 58.6% in 2015 to 41.4%. One of the main causes of this decline has been Turkey’s worsening economic fortunes, epitomized by the high inflation rate: Within one year, the Turkish lira lost fully 45% of its value. So desperate were ordinary Turks that they broke the barrier of fear and went out into the streets last November to demonstrate against the government.

Erdogan’s foreign policy aspirations have also been foundering. To distinguish himself from Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s venerated founding father, he initiated a slow shift away from Ataturk’s goal of “peace at home, peace in the world.” Ataturk’s policy was designed “to ensure Turkey’s security by avoiding foreign entanglements and by achieving workable agreements with neighbors in matters of local and regional concerns.” But Erdogan was motivated by different ideological tenets that led him in the opposite direction: those of neo-Ottomanism, Islamism, and regional expansionism. Since 2016, Turkey has gotten itself entangled in various military operations in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan—some successful, others much less so. And while these interventions were designed to arouse a sense of solidarity and historic grandeur among the military and the Turkish people as a whole, they have mostly turned out to be expensive adventures that have further complicated Turkey’s foreign relations, including with Israel.

In Libya, for example, Israel (and curiously enough, some Arab countries and the Arab League) supported the rival of the party backed by Turkey. In Syria, Israel tacitly accepted the weakened Assad regime, whereas Turkey has been attempting to overthrow Assad while also occupying large areas in the country’s north and northwest. Turkey and Israel happened to support the same side in Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia, but this did not entail any collaboration or reconciliation between Jerusalem and Ankara.

Two decades on, it is looking like none of Erdogan’s four major goals has been realized. Turkey in the Erdogan era has failed to present a model of coexistence between Islam and democracy, instead sliding into a fairly typical Islamist authoritarianism. The government’s suppression of human rights, its failure to address the Kurdish problem at home, and its expansionist policies abroad all but killed any future prospects for EU membership. The burgeoning economy of the first decade gave way to the corruption, mismanagement, and extravagant expenditures of the second, all of which have brought the country to the brink of economic collapse.

The independent path that Erdogan has chosen for Turkey’s foreign relations at one point included strengthening ties with Russia, which caused a conflict with NATO and especially the United States. No less irksome for Washington was the fact that Turkey helped Iran circumvent certain sanctions that the West imposed on it. Nor has Erdogan been more successful in bolstering Turkey’s relations in the Arab world. Except for longtime ally Qatar, relations with Egypt, Syria, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia were all strained in his second decade of rule. The main cause for this state of affairs has been Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which each of these Arab countries regard as a major threat.

By the end of 2021, the gap between Turkey’s ambitious regional policies and its actual regional isolation seemed to have sobered Erdogan, moving him to modify some of his positions, including endeavors to mend fences with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and most importantly the UAE. At the end of November 2021, Turkey signed cooperation agreements with the UAE meant to help alleviate Turkey’s economic crisis, including a $10 billion investment fund. Erdogan’s own visit to the previously vilified UAE in mid-February 2022 represented another important shift in Turkey’s foreign policy.

Part and parcel of this pivot has been Erdogan’s change in diplomacy toward Israel. Curiously enough, at the same time he harshly criticized the Abraham Accords, he sought to jump on the bandwagon and improve Turkey’s relations with the Jewish state. Some observers believe that a major reason for the need to court Israel has been the even greater need to improve relations with the United States. As vice president under Obama and then as president, Biden has harshly criticized Turkey’s human rights record and its treatment of the Kurds. The Turkish perception that Israel and American Jews can be good facilitators for reconciliation with the White House comes from their effective lobbying on behalf of relations with Turkey in Washington during the 1990s.

The other reason has been economic considerations. Even during the height of tensions, Turkey and Israel have been pragmatic enough to let economic ties remain above the fray. Turkey’s renewed engagement with Israel is expected to enhance economic relations, including an increase in Israeli tourism and cooperation on oil and gas projects.

Israel initially dragged its feet, skeptical of another apparent change of heart from Ankara. Erdogan’s enduring support of Hamas and his anti-Israeli public attacks seemed too ingrained to be brushed aside. Yaki Dayan, chief of staff to two Israeli foreign ministers, who had sat in on talks with Erdogan, said that “in all of these meetings I felt one thing clearly: the conspicuous lack of affection for Israel, and even hatred, did not come from his head but from his heart.” Another Israeli concern was the fear of endangering its relations with Greece and Cyprus, which have become central to its regional policy.

But in November 2020, intelligence officials from Turkey and Israel held a series of meetings to discuss the possibility of reconciliation. In June 2021, Turkey used the change of government in Israel to facilitate normalization with some confidence-building measures. Not only did Erdogan stop his public attacks against the Jewish state, but he started to describe Israel as a vital partner. There were also reports that Turkey was working to deport Hamas officials from Ankara.

By early 2022, the cold war between Ankara and Jerusalem gave way to more cordial, though still hesitant actions. There was initially a polite exchange of messages between Erdogan, new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and the new Israeli President Isaac Herzog. On March 9, Herzog visited Turkey and was received warmly by Erdogan. (In order not to endanger Israeli relations with Greece and Cyprus, Herzog paid a visit to them before flying to Ankara.)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Israeli President Isaac Herzog of Israel at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on March 9, 2022. A Turkish military band played ‘Hatikvah,’ Israel’s national anthem, in the first visit by an Israeli head of state to Turkey since 2007.

Notably, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put Turkey and Israel in difficult positions for many of the same reasons. For both countries, Russia has become a kind of frenemy. For Israel in particular, Russia is boss in Syria, and Jerusalem cannot afford to antagonize it as it seeks to preserve its freedom of maneuver against Iran. Another Israeli concern is the safety of Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine.

Turkey’s dilemmas are even more acute. It has weighed the option of blocking the entrance of additional Russian warships into the Black Sea, but it is also in need of Russian gas, and its dire economic situation does not permit it to take a bold stand against Moscow. Turkish troops are also operating in Syria, and there is a need to prevent them from becoming targets for the Russian military.

Israel and Turkey have thus adopted similar policies with regard to the Russian war in Ukraine. They have both attempted mediation efforts, so far with no success. Both are trying to walk a fine line between their moral and political obligations toward the West and a certain kind of neutrality toward Russia. At this stage, it is impossible to know whether cooperation over the Ukraine crisis might help Israel and Turkey cooperate more in other areas. It is possible, though, that an unexpected commonality of interests and challenges in Europe may drive both further in the direction of reconciliation in the Middle East.

Professor Ofra Bengio is senior research associate at the Moshe Center, Tel Aviv University and the author of several books, including The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.

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