Israel’s friend or enemy? The big hoax of Turkey’s president

Turkey’s President Erdoğan tries to find favor in the eyes of Israel and the US on one hand, while supporting terrorist groups on the other. Is it all a hoax?

By Burak Bekdil, Gatestone Institute

The province of Konya in central Anatolia has historically been a bastion of extreme conservatism and political Islam — meaning supporters of Turkey’s Islamist strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the presidential elections of 2018, in this industrial city, he won 75% of the vote.

“That dominance is now threatened by an unprecedented set of challenges,” concluded Reuters in a December report, after interviewing locals in Konya, including industrial workers, farmers and students lamenting over rising prices and fewer jobs.

The Turks’ per capita GDP has been falling for the seventh consecutive year, from $12,500 in 2012 to slightly more than $7,000 this year. The Turkish lira has lost more than half its value against major Western currencies in just the past three months.

Erdoğan started with Israel, his ideological nemesis, when he played in November, first the jailer and then the savior of an Israeli couple, Mordy and Natali Oknin. They were arrested and held in a Turkish jail for suspected espionage after photographing Erdoğan’s palace in Istanbul, where they were visiting as tourists.

In a well-choreographed move, the couple was released after one week. Their friends and family had feared they would have to stay imprisoned in a hostile country for years.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid released a statement on November 18, saying, “We thank the President of Turkey and his government for their cooperation and look forward to welcoming the couple back home.”

On the same day, Erdoğan held a rare phone conversation with his Israeli counterpart, President Isaac Herzog.

According to a statement by Turkey’s Communications Directorate, Erdoğan highlighted the significance of the two countries’ relations for the “security and stability of the Middle East” and noted that “differences of opinion can be minimized if acted with mutual understanding in both bilateral and regional issues.”

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Erdogan’s pragmatist self vs. Islamist self

That was Erdoğan’s pragmatist self, blinking at a hostile U.S. Congress at a time when he felt politically weakest due to increasing poverty and international financial isolation.

In an unusual gesture, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Murat Mercan, wished America’s Jewish community a Happy Hanukkah. Mercan also attended a Jewish Chabad dinner to light the Hanukkah Menorah, and pose for the cameras, in one photo, with Levi Shemtov, vice president of the orthodox organization American Friends of Lubavitch.

As a matter of fact, just weeks after his olive branch, on December 8, Erdogan’s Islamist self took the stage. He said that he was open to improved relations with Israel, but the Jewish state first had to display “more sensitive” policies toward Palestinians: “It [Israel] needs to be sensitive toward Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque”

“The problem with the narrative,” wrote Seth J. Frantzman in The Jerusalem Post, “is there is no evidence Ankara wants better ties or is willing to do anything in which Israel benefits… It [Ankara] thus wants ‘reconciliation’ without actually doing anything.”

Although a pillar in Erdoğan’s charm offensive, Israel is not the only adversary Turkey has been trying silently to mend fences with, or trying to impress Washington that it is doing so — all moves come with a U.S. perspective. Hence the sudden publicity of a Turkish-UAE reconciliation.

In 2020, Erdoğan threatened to reduce diplomatic ties with the Gulf state, after it had made peace with Israel. Earlier, Erdoğan and his propaganda machinery had also accused the UAE of sponsoring the failed putsch against his government in July 2016.

As Turkey’s economy kept freefalling, Erdoğan, on November 24, hosted Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Ankara. Turkey and the UAE signed accords on energy and technology investments while the central banks of Turkey and the UAE signed a cooperation agreement.

The Arab Weekly quoted a Turkish official as saying, “Problems with the UAE are now behind us. We are entering a period based fully on cooperation and mutual benefit,” and adding that the UAE’s investment would ultimately be in the billions of dollars. A few days after the Crown Prince’s visit to Ankara, a UAE delegation came to Turkey to discuss cooperation in the defense industry.

Winning hearts in Washington

Erdoğan is evidently trying to win hearts and minds in Washington while chasing money in the Gulf. In early December, Erdoğan was in his home away from home: Qatar, Turkey’s only Gulf ally. Erdoğan and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani signed 12 MoUs across various fields including, among others, the military, healthcare, tourism, and education sectors.

What is the message to Washington? Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, explained, “Qatar will work with ally Turkey and Taliban officials to ensure that Kabul’s international airport, the site of chaotic scenes after the Taliban takeover, continues to function.”

U.S. President Joe Biden evidently prefers that a NATO force run Kabul’s airport rather than paving the way for more Russian and Chinese dominance. “The overarching motivation for Erdogan’s government was to use Afghanistan to repair ties with the Biden administration,” according to a Chatham House report.

“The fact that Erdogan returned from a recent US trip to attend the opening of the UNGA without having secured a meeting with Biden is illustrative of how much importance the US attaches to Turkey’s aspirations in Afghanistan.”

Erdoğan’s charm offensive to win hearts and minds in Washington, however, is not limited to changing his aggressive course against Israel or unfriendly Gulf states. There is speculation that his next target for Gulf reconciliation could be Saudi Arabia. Before that, however, and totally irrelevant to his quest for foreign cash flows, came Armenia.

Armenia is an important dossier for Biden, who, in an April 2021 statement, became the first American president to recognize the Armenian genocide, thereby infuriating Turkey.

Biden has persistently encouraged Turkey to normalize diplomatic relations with Armenia, and even encouraged Erdoğan, during a meeting of the two leaders earlier in Rome, to open Turkey’s border with Armenia. So, Armenia deserves another hoax olive branch.

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The endgame

What is the hoax here? Erdogan’s move to pretend that Turkey is now taking steps for normalization is fake. He will start a process that he intends never to complete — just in case other efforts might have gone unnoticed in Washington.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on December 13 that Turkey and Armenia would mutually appoint special envoys to discuss steps to normalize ties, and added that they will also restart charter flights between Istanbul and Yerevan. Three days later, Ankara appointed Serdar Kılıç, a former ambassador to Washington, as its special envoy for Armenia.

The appointment of special envoys is the official start of the normalization process. The move has formally upgraded the status of ties from “no diplomatic relations” to “normalization of ties in progress.”

Finally, someone heard Erdoğan’s appealing voice in Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that they “welcome and strongly support” the move.

UAE (and potentially Saudi) money flowing into the ailing Turkish economy will be bad news for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood — in the short term. The ailing Turkish economy is forcing Erdoğan to reconcile with adversaries, and reconciliation means these adversaries will demand that Erdoğan stop supporting Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. That will be the case “in the short-term.”

At the first opportunity, however, Erdoğan will abandon the reconciliation and resume his support for these terrorist groups.

Erdoğan’s pragmatist self has only appeared after 12 or so years, as he prepares to fight for his political survival in the 2023 elections. If he feels Gulf money and some kind of U.S. political support has bolstered the Turkish economy sufficiently for him to win in 2023, he will take off his reconciliatory mask and put his usual Islamist shirt back on.