Turkey targets Israel with charm offensive as it angles to regain regional status

ISTANBUL, Turkey — By now, it is no secret that Turkey is working hard to bring Israel back into its orbit.

For over a decade, Turkey was one of Israel’s most bitter critics on the international stage. Anti-Israel rhetoric from top officials, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, verged on the apoplectic. Ankara also took actions that angered officials in Jerusalem, most notably providing support and a haven for the Hamas terror group.

For the past two years, however, Erdogan has struck a noticeably different tone toward Israel, expressing interest in improving ties with his erstwhile and possibly future ally.

Most recently, President Isaac Herzog met with Erdogan in Ankara, a visit the Turkish leader called “a turning point in relations between Turkey and Israel.”

This week, Ankara pressed ahead in its attempts to woo Israel. The country’s Directorate of Communications flew in seven Israeli journalists, this writer included, for a series of meetings with officials and tours of popular sites. There was a heavy emphasis on historic mosques and synagogues, as Turkish officials seem eager to promote the idea that the country is a tolerant and safe home for diverse religions.

The initiative clearly came with Erdogan’s full knowledge and blessing.

The directorate, which paid for lodging at a five-star hotel, meals at expensive restaurants, and a boat tour on the Bosporus, is part of Erdogan’s office. Its director, Fahrettin Altun, is one of Erdogan’s closest advisers and meets with him daily, a Turkish official told The Times of Israel. Altun is also a member of Turkey’s National Security Council, the first communications professional to join the forum.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Composite/AP)

The press tour, which culminates in a meeting Wednesday with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, is the latest stage in Turkey’s charm offensive, as Erdogan continues to angle for the big prize — a visit by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the restoration of full diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Ankara.

Going cold Turkey

After decades of ups and downs, a breakthrough in Turkey-Israel ties came with the start of the Madrid peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which led to Turkey and Israel exchanging ambassadors in 1992. Trade and tourism flourished, and the sides signed agreements in 1994 that marked the beginning of intensive security cooperation. Iranian fundamentalism and Syria’s support for Kurdish PKK fighters alarmed Ankara, and strategic ties with Israel were seen as crucial by the secular establishment, especially the military.

Defense ties were further enhanced in 1997 in the wake of the first visit to Israel by the Turkish military chief of staff: Turkish warships made a port of call in Haifa that year and regular naval exercises began. Israeli pilots trained in Turkey and likely took off from Turkish bases to conduct reconnaissance missions in Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Turkish sailors on the frigate Fatih watch the city of Haifa, June 17, 1997. (AP/Anatolia News Agency/Sukru/File)

The positive ties began to unravel when Erdogan’s populist Justice and Development Party, also known as the AKP, came to power in 2002. As prime minister, Erdogan sought to reorient Turkish policy away from a security-based posture against traditional threats like Syria — which had driven Israel and Turkey closer together — to one aimed at positive relations with its other neighbors.

While the Second Intifada raged, Erdogan turned down invitations to meet with senior Israeli officials, but still tried to play a constructive role as a mediator in covert Israel-Syria peace talks. And Turkey continued to buy arms from Israel, which sold more arms to Turkey than to any country but India between 2000 and 2010.

Israeli tanks at the staging ground outside Gaza on December 29, 2008, the third day of Operation Cast Lead (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)

Israeli tanks at a staging ground outside Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, December 29, 2008. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90/File)

In late 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza only two days after a meeting between Erdogan and then-prime minister Ehud Olmert in Ankara. Olmert declined to inform his counterpart of the impending operation, and the proximity of the meeting to the offensive was seen as an embarrassment to Erdogan, who feared being seen as complicit, and harmful to Turkey’s improved ties with the Arab world.

Erdogan led the chorus of intense international criticism of Israel for its Gaza policies, including a public rebuke of then-president Shimon Peres during a panel in Davos in January 2009. “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” Erdogan declared before storming off the stage.

The wheels finally came off in May 2010, when Israeli naval commandos opened fire, after being attacked, as they intercepted a flotilla trying to bust the blockade of Gaza. Ten Turkish activists on the flagship Mavi Marmara died in the melee, and Ankara withdrew its ambassador and expelled Israel’s, as ties reached their nadir.

Activists on the 'Mavi Marmara' preparing to attack IDF soldiers (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

Activists on the ‘Mavi Marmara,’ preparing to attack IDF soldiers. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

There was moderate improvement in 2013, after US president Barack Obama orchestrated a phone call between Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan, in which the Israeli premier offered a carefully worded apology for the Marmara incident. But ongoing Turkish criticism over Israel’s blockade of Gaza and military actions against Hamas kept the two sides at odds.

Amidst shared concerns over Iranian influence in Syria and Turkish interest in Israeli natural gas, Ankara and Jerusalem formally resolved their differences in June 2016. Full diplomatic relations were restored, among other positive gestures like Turkish help during wildfires in Israel that year.

The reconciliation did not last, however. Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked Israel’s to leave in May 2018, in the wake of violent protests on the Israel-Gaza border in which dozens of Palestinians were killed. Turkish and Israeli leaders criticized each other bitterly, with Erdogan calling Israel a “child-murdering” country and Netanyahu accusing Erdogan of killing Kurdish civilians.

Through the ups and downs, though, Israel and Turkey never completely broke off ties, and while tourism has suffered, the countries have maintained trade and quiet diplomatic activity.

Pro-Palestinian Turks set on fire an Israeli flag as they shout slogans to protest Israel’s plans to build new housing in East Jerusalem, in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, March 19, 2010. (AP/Ibrahim Usta)

A new rapprochement process has been underway since May 2020. That month, an El Al plane landed in Turkey for the first time in a decade, and reports emerged that Turkey would return its ambassador to Tel Aviv.

Since then, Erdogan has regularly spoken about his desire for a closer relationship.

In a November phone call with Herzog after intervening to free an Israeli couple arrested in Turkey as suspected spies, Erdogan stressed that he views ties with Israel as important to his country and “of key importance to the peace, stability, and security of the Middle East.”

Erdogan also said he sought a comprehensive dialogue between the countries on bilateral and regional issues.

Mordy Oknin (left), who was jailed along with his wife Natali for photographing the Turkish president’s palace, arrives at their home in Modiin, November 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Bennett thanked Erdogan by phone as well after the couple was freed, and in late March the Turkish president said Bennett might soon visit the country. The Prime Minister’s Office denied that any plans were in place, but it is clear that both sides see such a visit as the final step on the way to fully restored ties.

Regional rapprochement

The sea change in Turkey’s attitude toward Israel — and other regional powers — is being driven by global and regional shifts that have isolated Ankara.

In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, which felled Sunni Arab regimes across the Middle East, Erdogan began pushing a regional order rooted in political Islam, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamic Ennahda party in Tunisia.

In this Jan. 25, 2011 file photo, demonstrators deface a poster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Alexandria, Egypt. (AP Photo)

But pro-Western authoritarian forces pushed back across the region, and Turkey’s rivals allied themselves against the challenge emerging from Ankara. In the face of increasing isolation and economic challenges, Turkey has made a decision to chart a new course in its foreign policy, including overtures to Greece and the EU.

“Their previous foreign policy doctrine is not playing into their hand anymore,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “Turkey’s foreign policy is going through a factory settings reset.”

Israel is not the only country with which Turkey is working to make amends. Egypt emerged as Turkey’s main ideological and geopolitical rival since Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power in a 2013 coup that deposed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

After conducting a proxy war in Libya and jockeying for position in the search for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and Turkey seem to be on the way to rapprochement. Last week, reports emerged that Turkey was preparing to return its ambassador to Cairo after a nine-year absence.

Left to right in first row: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sissi and (top row left to right) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi, EU Commision President Ursula von der Leyen, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan pose for a photograph during a peace summit on Libya at the Chancellery in Berlin, January 19, 2020. (Odd Andersen/AFP)

Turkey is moving to restore ties with Saudi Arabia as well. Last week, the trial in Turkey of 26 Saudis accused of involvement in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was halted, and the proceedings were transferred to the Saudis.

Erdogan is expected to visit Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks during Ramadan as well.

The UAE has also shown it is ready to make amends with its major regional foe. The Emiratis viewed an emerging Turkey-Qatar network as its foremost adversary in the Middle East, a more pressing threat even than that posed by Iran. Abu Dhabi sought to counter Turkey’s emerging Islamist network with an alliance of its own, based on a moderate, pro-Western model.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, speak during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

But with the UAE seeking stability so it can continue to position itself as a global trade and investment hub, and with its understanding that the US is about to cut a deal with Iran, Abu Dhabi is eager to bury the hatchet with regional powers. Mohamed Bin Zayed, the UAE’s powerful crown prince and de facto leader, flew out to Turkey in November to meet with Erdogan. After the meeting, the two countries inked billions of dollars worth of agreements in trade, energy, technology, banking, and investments.

EastMed and Abraham Accords

The effort to rekindle ties with Israel are part of that same trend.

“I think Turkey sees a lot of opportunities to be able to fix this relationship,” Yusuf Erim, Turkey analyst at TRT World, told The Times of Israel on Monday. “I think the dynamics in the region are supporting this reconciliation.”

Over the decade-plus of Turkish-Israeli tensions, Israel has shown its value as a partner to other countries. Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, and European rivals of Turkey came together around natural gas cooperation in the EastMed Gas Forum. Even though the alliance’s planned pipeline to Europe is unlikely to ever be constructed, the group is cooperating on gas exploration in other ways.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani waves as he poses for a photo with attendees following the Negev Summit in Kibbutz Sde Boker, southern Israel, Monday, March 28, 2022. Israel on Monday hosted the foreign ministers of four Arab nations and the United States in a bid to strengthen its position in a rapidly shifting Middle East. The gathering brought together the top diplomats from all but one of the Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel in U.S.-mediated negotiations. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Moreover, the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco are moving ahead as tangible agreements are being signed. Egypt and Jordan are also showing increasing interest in joining Abraham Accords initiatives, and the US Biden administration has thrown its full backing behind the expansion of the alliance after initial hesitation.

Turkey feels left out in the cold.

Beyond the diplomatic isolation, Turkey desperately needs foreign investment. Its total net foreign resources have declined almost 50 percent in the last five years, and direct foreign investment dropped 38% over the same stretch, as the Turkish economy continues to reel from the effects of the pandemic. In March, inflation in Turkey reached 54%, a 20-year high.

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli president Isaac Herzog and Rabbi Marc Schneier, at a reception in Ankara, Turkey, on March 9, 2022. (Courtesy: Marc Schneier)

Sustained economic growth was the key to Erdogan’s popularity among the Turkish working class as prime minister, and attracting new foreign investment is of prime importance for Turkey’s leader.

“The country is perceived in the international arena as engaging in verbal fights with other countries, and not having normal relations,” said Cohen. “The Turkish economy is severely affected from these kinds of frictions.”

Photo ops with Israeli leaders are the perfect sign of normalcy needed to calm foreign investors.

“When you are mending fences with Jerusalem, you are giving a signal to the West that you are going to make your foreign policy compatible with the demands of the West,” said Cohen.

I believe that Turkey is a country that can differentiate between politics and business.

It was no coincidence that the first meeting on the Israeli journalists’ visit this week was with Burak Daglioglu, head of the Turkish presidency’s investment office.

Daglioglu emphasized that Erdogan has never given any instructions to limit business activity with Israeli companies.

“I believe that Turkey is a country that can differentiate between politics and business,” said Daglioglu. “I think you can give a clear message to the Israeli business community: If they see an opportunity in the market, there won’t be any politically discriminatory actions toward them.”

There is a convergence of interests with Israel on Iran as well. Both countries still expect the US to sign some sort of return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran, and to delist the IRGC as a terrorist group in some way.

Turkish soldiers drink tea in the Syrian province of Idlib, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. Turkey said it hit back at Syrian government forces on Monday, after “intense” Syrian shelling killed five of its soldiers and wounded five others in Syria’s northern Idlib province. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)

Erdogan is well aware of the threat that Iran and its proxy network pose.

“Turkey shares a 534-kilometer border with Iran,” said Erim, “but it also shares an 1,800-kilometer border with Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria.”

Drone and missile strikes from Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen against Saudi and Emirati targets were a “wake-up call,” he continued.

Turkey refrains from condemning Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, and has even shown willingness to kill Hezbollah fighters in Syria when they threaten Turkish interests.

“Turkey understands that Israeli airstrikes in Syria against IRGC targets are not a bad thing,” Erim said.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, firefighters work at the scene of a missile attack, at the port of the coastal city of Latakia, Syria, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. (SANA via AP)

Israel’s special relationship with the US is a factor as well. Erdogan is eager to do whatever he can to assure the Americans that he is a reliable ally, and knows that Israeli officials can open doors in Washington that he cannot.

“In Turkey’s eyes, Israel is considered the representative of the US administration in the Middle East,” said Cohen.

The Turkish leader and his American counterpart have had a publicly acrimonious relationship for years, and Biden’s election made it even more pressing for Erdogan to focus on shoring up his reputation in the US.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine — and NATO’s robust response — has only strengthened Turkey’s desire to mend fences with the US, and with the NATO alliance. Turkey decided to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system in 2017, prompting the Trump administration to evict it from the F-35 fighter jet project and finally sanctioning its fellow NATO member in December 2020.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019 file photo, a truck carrying parts of the S-400 air defense systems, exits a Russian transport aircraft after landing at Murted military airport outside Ankara, Turkey. (Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool)

Ankara is now angling to purchase dozens of new F-16s, and there are strong indications from the White House that it will approve the sale.

Spoiler alert

With all the signs pointing to Israel-Turkey reconciliation, it seems like a matter of time before ambassadors are sent to both countries and the relationship broadens.

Still, potential spoilers remain. The Bennett-Lapid coalition is on shaky ground, and Netanyahu is waiting in the wings. Though he has proven willing to meet Erdogan in the middle in order to improve the relationship, there is no telling how Erdogan will receive a potential Netanyahu comeback, or Israeli political instability in general.

And, of course, there is always the danger of escalation with the Palestinians. Israel is facing a terror wave during Ramadan, and miscalculations could set Jerusalem ablaze in violence. A larger conflict with Hamas in Gaza is also always a possibility, and Erdogan will find it hard to keep silent if images of dead Palestinian civilians are being broadcast across the Muslim world.

But if Bennett can keep the current violence from spreading, he can expect to find an eager partner in Erdogan in the coming months.

“In the next year, we are going to see a Turkish foreign minister in the second Negev Summit,” said Cohen, the first being a landmark meeting of several top regional diplomats in southern Israel last month. “I assume this is the goal of the Turks, to be included in this regional initiative.”

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