All of Turkey’s reconciliation talk with Israel wasn’t entirely genuine, but the 40-minute phone call between Erdogan and Herzog was real and very symbolic.
https://www.jpost.com-By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S.(photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with his Israeli counterpart on Monday in a call that has been reported to be positive and represent a possible opening to better ties. They discussed the “high potential for cooperation in the field of energy, tourism and technology,” according to a statement from the Turkish presidency.
Turkey continues to critique Israel on its treatment of Palestinians and stands by the two-state solution. Erdogan hosted Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday, illustrating how Turkey is taking a conventional approach to the peace issue.
This is major contrast to a year ago, when Turkey’s leader was rolling out the red carpet for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. In fact, Turkey’s leader also openly hosted and backed Hamas in a December 2019 meeting as well. Reports in UK media painted Turkey as not merely hosting Hamas terrorist leaders, but also allowing Hamas to plan attacks from Turkey.
Yet Turkey’s hosting of Hamas went without critique from the previous US administration, despite US president Donald Trump and his team being very supportive of Israel. Erdogan’s hosting of Hamas leaders in December 2019 came only two months after Turkey had demanded the US withdraw from Syria and the White House had agreed with Ankara, leading to chaos in eastern Syria and leading to Turkey clashing with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. In fact, Erdogan had also gone to the United Nations in September and bashed Israel, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.
Why was Turkey rewarded for those comparisons by the Trump administration and why did its increasingly hate-filled rhetoric against Israel go without any pushback from Washington from 2016 to 2020. In general Turkey’s aggressive behavior appeared to get a blank check from Washington for several years. There was little leverage over Ankara and not even an attempt to alter its rhetoric and hosting of Hamas.
This appears counter-intuitive since the Trump administration was widely perceived as pro-Israel. The administration moved the embassy to Jerusalem and recognized the Golan as part of Israel and pushed for the Abraham Accords. Turkey opposed these actions vehemently. However, at the same time, the Trump administration was very pro-Turkey.
Those sympathetic or linked to Turkey in the administration go back to the 2016 campaign and reportedly included those like Michael Flynn who became briefly the first national security advisor under Trump. Bloomberg also reported on June 29 that Rudy Giuliani, who was close to Trump, was “facing inquiry into whether he lobbied for Turkey.” A case involving a Turkish bank accused of getting around Iran sanctions also illustrated “Erdogan influence,” according to The New York Times.
Beyond these reports, the degree to which Turkey appeared to run part of Washington became clear when Turkey’s president visited Washington in May 2017 and security linked to the visit attacked peaceful protesters. This was the first time that a foreign government had sent men to attack protesters in the heart of the US capital. Yet charges were quietly dismissed.
It became clear that Turkey had impunity in DC. Ankara pressed for the US to extradite a cleric and it held a US pastor hostage, it also went after employees of the US consulate and embassy and even soldiers stationed in Turkey, with conspiracies spread that accused the US of backing “terror” and a “coup.” Populist and state media was unleashed to bash the US and Turkey became closer with Russia, buying the S-400 and frequently meeting Russian and Iranian leaders to discuss Syria policy.
This very strange movement by Turkey, both to influence the US administration and also to rapidly grow hostile to the US, led to increasing anti-Israel statements.
Turkey and Israel already had bad relations dating back to at least 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. Turkey backed the Mavi Marmara whose far-right Islamists activists tried to break the blockade of Gaza. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to patch things up in 2015, but warned that Ankara’s backing of Hamas was a sticking point. A reconciliation road map was presented in December 2015 and appeared on track in June of 2016. Ties were restored.
Things rapidly fell apart after Trump came to office and it appears that Ankara felt it had a blank check from Washington to tear up its policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors, and begin invasions and threats. Soon, Turkey was invading Syria, ethnically cleansing Afrin, and working with Russia and recruiting Syrians as mercenaries to go to Libya. Ankara threatened Greece and its threats helped bring Israel closer to Greece, Egypt and other states. When Israel and the Gulf states were on the verge of peace, Turkey warned it might break relations with the UAE and others who made peace with Israel.
Where was the Trump administration and its state department during this time to try to reduce the tensions? It was totally absent. Even when Turkey hinted at reconciliation several times, such as in the Spring of 2020 and then in December 2020, there was little interest from DC. Israel’s ambassador was humiliated during the tensions leading up to the US moving the embassy to Jerusalem in 2018. Hamas got the red carpet.
Turkey’s narrative during this time was that a new government in Israel could lead to reconciliation. These stories were fed to Israeli media. Turkey also appeared to want to reduce Greece-Israel ties. This means all the reconciliation talk wasn’t entirely genuine. However the 40-minute phone call this week between the Turkish leader and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog is real. The call is symbolic. It is similar to new outreach from Jordan and increasing ties with Morocco and formal visits in the UAE, and talks with Bahrain and Morocco.
There is no doubt that Ankara is hostile to Israel’s policies. Ankara wants to champion the Palestinians for street credit and it has backed Hamas because the leading AKP Party is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Hamas has origins in. However, Ankara’s hosting of Abbas shows it may be thinking more seriously. Back in 2018 Turkey also did outreach to Jordan. Turkey has a tendency to do two things at once, both act with aggression and with responsibility. It is never clear which “Turkey” one may encounter on a given day.
However, that janus-face or rapid change in policy may be built in to try to see if bullying or diplomacy will achieve things. Nevertheless, Turkey’s team around Erdogan now has many years of experience in this, from Interior Minister Soleyman Soylu to presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin, intelligence head Hakan Fidan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
This professional team in charge for many years likely lurches from policy to policy on purpose as part of a policy if crises that seeks to maximize gains through stoking tensions. The Trump administration it appears did not recognize or calculate or address this. An unintended consequence then of a blank check to Ankara, and also to Israel, was to fuel tensions.
In addition the Trump team’s people included some appointees in the State Department who were openly pro-Ankara and thought that both Ankara and Israel’s policies in Syria could compliment each other. This was under a misguided view that Ankara and Jerusalem are both against Iran, whereas in fact Turkey was working with Iran.
The policy thus failed to materialize. Some harbored fantasies in Washington of even working with the extremists among HTS in Idlib, a partnership with jihadists. Turkey was backing Syrian rebels but mostly to distract and use them to fight Kurds and to export them as mercenaries. The failed policy fueled Ankara’s aggression with little to show for it in Washington in return.
A more reasonable policy would have tried to get Turkey and Israel on the same page on some shared issues, and not fueled Ankara or extremists or destabilization. Turkey’s destabilizing actions tended to help Iran. This eroded US support in the region as well.