columnMiddle East

Erdoğan’s deceitful courtship of Israel

One thing at which the Turkish president excels is capitalizing on a crisis of his own making.

A campaign poster in Istanbul's Taksim Square promoting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's reelection. It reads: “Istanbul is Ready, Target 2023.”  Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A campaign poster in Istanbul's Taksim Square promoting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's reelection. It reads: “Istanbul is Ready, Target 2023.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s latest overtures to Israel should not be misconstrued as a change of heart where the Jewish state is concerned. No, the regional shift marked by the Abraham Accords has not suddenly swept over the tyrant in Ankara. You know, the one whose initial response to the normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was to weigh severing diplomatic ties with the Gulf state.

“History and the conscience of the region’s peoples will not forget and never forgive this hypocritical behavior,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement in August 2020, a month before the deal was inked at the White House. “It is extremely worrying that the UAE should, with a unilateral action, try and do away with the [2002] … peace plan developed by the Arab League.”

This wasn’t the least bit surprising, given Erdoğan’s penchant for the Palestinians in general and close ties with Hamas in particular. The Arab League initiative required an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Line—the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders, dubbed by the late statesman Abba Eban as those of “Auschwitz.”

But even that proposal was a non-starter, as nothing short of the elimination of Israel has ever been on the PLO or Palestinian Authority agenda. And while the Fatah-run P.A. sometimes tweaks its tune for international consumption, Hamas boasts about its ultimate aims for Israel, despite the latter’s having evacuated every last Jew from Gaza in 2005.

Turkey’s love affair with the terrorist organization that rules the Strip has made perfect sense, given the Islamism they share and brutal methods of both to control their populaces. Erdoğan, for instance, has spent years imprisoning critics in the media, the police, the justice system and the universities.

As recently as 12 days ago, prominent Turkish journalist Sedef Kabas was arrested in Istanbul and charged with the crime of insulting the president. By (kangaroo) court order, she was thrown in jail, where she’s now awaiting her trial. If convicted, she faces up to four years behind bars.

Kabas’s felony consisted of her quoting a proverb, both on an opposition TV channel and on Twitter, which she was clearly directing at Erdoğan.

“When the ox climbs to the palace, he does not become a king, but the palace becomes a barn,” she commented.

All the Turkish president’s yes-men promptly denounced her. Among these paragons of Islamic radicalism was the head of the government’s “communications department,” the regime’s propaganda machine, who decried the “vulgar insults” that mar the “honor of the presidency … [which] is the honor of our country.”

Another was Turkey’s justice minister, who tweeted that Kabas will “get what she deserves” for her “illegal” remark.

Kabas is in good company. She’s now among the tens of thousands of Turks who’ve been jailed for insulting Erdoğan since he became president in 2014—after serving for 11 years as prime minister—and began implementing that particular legislation with a vengeance.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog must keep such horrors in mind when he meets with Erdoğan in Turkey in the coming days. Let’s hope he’s not fooled by the Turkish autocrat’s phony “friendly” gestures and manipulative rhetoric.

The visit by Herzog, Erdoğan told NTV last week, could signal the start of a “new era” in Israeli-Turkish relations. Translated into Turkish, this means that Ankara intends to reap economic and political benefits without giving anything in return.

Making nice to the highest Israeli figurehead on the public-relations spectrum is part of his ploy. It’s one he’s clearly been plotting since Herzog’s swearing-in last July.

Less than a week after the inauguration ceremony, the new Israeli president proudly revealed that Erdoğan had phoned to congratulate him.

“We both emphasized that Israeli-Turkish relations are of great importance for security and stability in the Middle East. We agreed on the continuation of a dialogue in order to improve relations between our countries,” tweeted Herzog.

What he didn’t do was express doubt about Erdoğan’s true intentions, given his virulent anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and open support for Hamas, even when it bombarded Israel with thousands of rockets throughout the month of May, mere weeks prior to their chummy chat.

Nor is it clear whether, a few months later, Herzog grasped the depth of the sham when faced with what can only be described as the abduction of a middle-aged Israeli couple vacationing in Turkey. Yes, Natalie and Mordy Oknin were slapped with the bogus charge of espionage for taking a photo of the presidential palace from the observation deck of the Küçük Çamlıca TV Radio Tower—a tourist favorite for its panoramic view—and were sent to jail. Just like that.

Ironically, immediately before their detention, the husband and wife from Modi’in had made a video lauding their holiday venue. “Turkey is fun. It’s safe. You can speak Hebrew freely here … they love us. Come on over,” they said on camera with great cheer.

Since the harrowing ordeal, they’ve changed their view of the country and its “safety” for Israelis. Their government should do the same when it comes to trusting Erdoğan’s Cheshire-cat smile.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spent days appealing to Erdoğan to intervene. Each begged him to persuade Turkish law enforcement to release the Oknins from custody, on the grounds that they weren’t Mossad agents.

As if Erdoğan weren’t aware of that fact all along; and as though he hadn’t been responsible for their capture in the first place.

But one thing at which he excels is capitalizing on a crisis of his own making. Doing so is how he managed to emerge victorious and in clover from the 2010 Mavi Marmara affair.

That was when, thanks to then-U.S. President Barack Obama, he not only received an apology from then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the deadly incident that he himself instigated, but tons of cash, as well.

There’s no doubt that he’s currently up to something similar. While burying the hatchet with the UAE for financial reasons—with Abu Dhabi planning to launch a $10 billion fund for investments in Ankara—Erdoğan is setting his treacherous sights on Israel. It’s not an eye to rapprochement, however, as the Turkish despot has illustrated repeatedly.

Herzog just completed an uplifting trip to Dubai, where he opened Israel’s pavilion at Expo 2020 to the music of “Hatikvah.”

“We, the people of Israel, as children of the same Abraham, share your high regard for religious faith bound with ingenuity,” he told his hosts. “We admire the course you have charted. Friends, I hope, and I believe, that more and more nations will soon follow the UAE’s lead and join the Abraham Accords.”

If he imagines that Erdoğan’s Turkey is one such nation, he’s in for a rude awakening.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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