To most Israelis, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan represents nothing less than an antisemite. He has attacked Israel many times and in numerous forums. During Israel’s operation Guardian of the Walls (May 2021) against Hamas’ terror missile attack against Israeli cities, Erdogan accused Israel of “terrorism” against Palestinians, adding, “It is in their nature.” Erdogan went on to say, “They are murderers to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They are only satisfied by sucking their blood.” Erdogan’s libelous, malicious, and bogus accusations prompted the US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, to issue a statement saying, “The US strongly condemns President Erdogan’s antisemitic comments regarding the Jewish people and finds them reprehensible.”
Erdogan inherited his antisemitic cues from his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, the founder and leader of the Islamist Welfare Party. Although Erdogan’s hostility toward Israel and Jews didn’t have the same level of obsession as Erbakan’s, and he (Erdogan) has had a greater propensity for political pragmatism, nevertheless, over time when discussing Zionism, Jews, or Israel, his speeches resembled that of Erbakan’s in their antisemitic tone and hue.
On January 2009, at the Davos, Switzerland World Economic Forum, a panel discussion on the recent Israeli operation against Hamas in Gaza in the aftermath of Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israel, with then Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres, the former (Erdogan) charged Peres, by saying: “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” This crude charge came from the mouth of the leader of the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement. Hamas, being closely embraced and protected by Erdogan is the Gaza branch of the MB.
In a 2014 speech before the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, Erdogan defended himself against the accusation of being an antisemite. He stated, “Holding a state responsible that massacres is not antisemitism. It is not antisemitism either to criticize an administration that massacres innocent babies and children in their homes, mosques, hospitals, schools, beaches, and parks without discrimination. Our criticism is not directed at the Jews at all. It is solely directed at the Israeli administration and its policies…”
Erdogan has repeatedly falsified facts. The Turkish Islamist flotilla and its main ship MV Mavi Marmara, set out to break the Israeli blockade of the terrorist Hamas controlled Gaza, and defied Israeli naval orders to turn back. When Israeli commandos boarded the ship, they were attacked by Turkish Islamist activists with iron bars and knifes, and one of them seized a gun from an Israeli and aimed to kill him. To defend their lives from mortal danger, during the struggle, nine Turks were killed and 10 Israeli commandos wounded. Another Turk subsequently died. It was clearly a case of Turkish provocation and violence, which the Israelis needed to respond to in order to defend their lives. In 2020, following President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Erdogan hosted a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and called for jihad against Israel.
Given Turkey’s economic troubles, the free fall of the Turkish currency – the Lira, and its political isolation, added to Iranian proxies in Iraq attacking a Turkish base near Mosul, Iraq. Erdogan is on a quest to re-arrange Turkey’s geopolitical situation, and heal its economic ills before the election scheduled next year. His recent visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had clear economic as well as political ends. Israel is seen by Erdogan as another beneficial source of economic gain, not least in the realm of tourism. But with open eyes at the emerging Sunni-Muslim and Israel alliance against a hegemonic Iran, Erdogan began to throw hints about rapprochement with Israel. He needed to find the appropriate contact in Israel. While his relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government was acerbic and getting worse, the new government in Jerusalem, especially a new president, provided a possible opening. Erdogan is pleased in particular with the participation of the Islamist Arab party Ra’am in the Israeli coalition government. Ra’am is affiliated with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In June 2021, on the election of Isaac Herzog as Israel’s president, Erdogan called to congratulate him. He then called Herzog again to express his condolences on the death of Herzog’s mother. Herzog, on his part, called Erdogan to wish him a speedy recovery and get well, after Erdogan was infected with the coronavirus. Erdogan has subsequently invited Herzog to visit him in Ankara. The Turkish media has confirmed that Herzog will be visiting Turkey on March 9-10, 2022. Erdogan’s top adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, and the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, came to Israel to prepare for Herzog’s visit and discuss relations between the two countries.
The overtures Erdogan has made toward Herzog have spurred a certain momentum in the cooperation between Israel’s Mossad and the Turkish intelligence agencies, as well as between their respective foreign and defense ministries. On February 11, 2022, the Turkish media reported that Turkey’s national intelligence agency – MIT, thwarted an Iranian assassination attempt on an Israeli businessman named Yair Geller.
The convergence of Israeli-Turkish relations occurred even while Erdogan was fuming with invectives against Israel. In the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Israel and Turkey found themselves on the side of Azerbaijan, while Iran and Russia sided with Armenia. Israel and Turkey both have close relations with the Central-Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan; all of these “stans” were former soviet republics, and all belong to the Turkic family of nations. Turkey, like Israel, is concerned with Iran’s role in Syria, and its hegemonic drive in the region.
Gas is certainly an economic factor in the apparent budding ties between Turkey and Israel. In recent years, Israel has become a major natural gas power. It is currently supplying natural gas to Jordan and Egypt, as well as to Lebanon through a third party. The US has encouraged Israel to supply gas to Turkey in order to limit its dependence on Russian gas, especially now when the US and its NATO allies have decided to impose severe sanctions on Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine, and the gross violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Erdogan would be happy to end Turkey’s dependence on its historical enemy -Russia. Erdogan would love to convince the Israelis to ship its gas through a direct pipeline to Turkey, which he would then extend to Europe.
Reuters reported (February 8, 2022) that Turkey will not abandon Palestinian support for closer ties with Israel. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters, “Any step we take with Israel regarding our relations, any normalization, will not be at the expense of the Palestinian cause, like some other countries.” Just as Erdogan is unlikely to close Hamas’ offices in Turkey, Israel will not abandon its close ties with Cyprus and Greece.
So, will the leopard change his spots? Israelis are skeptical. Many believe that Erdogan is trying to drive a wedge between Israel and its Hellenic allies Cyprus and Greece. Others contend that Erdogan’s supposedly ‘new approach’ is a temporary result of his deteriorating economy and his political standing, which is in free fall. The only way he can convince Israel that he has changed is by cutting his ties with Hamas.