(February 4, 2022 / JNS) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is wooing Israel, but Israeli leaders note they’ve seen this movie before. Some argue that the Turkish leader’s overtures to Israel and the West are a temporary expedient to extricate his country from its economic woes and ensure his re-election. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, while seeming to welcome Erdoğan’s apparent change of heart, has at the same time expressed reservations, saying he has “no illusions” about Turkey.
Israel should handle Erdoğan’s outreach “with deep caution,” said Burak Bekdil, a journalist who wrote for Turkey’s largest circulation daily, Hürriyet, for 29 years. “His hostility towards the Jewish state can be disguised at times. But it will not go away,” he told JNS.
That hostility has manifested itself in comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, calling Israel an “apartheid state” and describing Israelis during the 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza last May as “murderers, to the point that they kill children who are 5 or 6 years old. They only are satisfied by sucking their blood.”
Bekdil said the Erdoğan turnabout is indeed driven by his domestic political struggles. The man who ran on a platform of economic growth has since 2013 presided over a spiraling financial situation, he said. “Turkey’s per capita income dropped for the seventh consecutive time last year—from $13,000 in 2013 to around $7,500,” said Bekdil.
The Turkish currency has collapsed. Inflation has officially surged to 36%. Bekdil puts it at more than 50%. One independent Turkish study group on inflation reports 82.81%.
The numbers have translated into widespread dissatisfaction with Erdoğan, even among his base. He needs to turn the economy around, or at least stabilize it, before the general elections, set for mid-2023. “For that, he must overcome the economic crisis. For that, he needs to end Turkey’s international isolation and lure foreign investment,” explained Bekdil, who is now a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
Bekdil said Erdoğan worries that if the United States decides to punish Turkey, it would worsen Turkey’s economic crisis. Erdoğan wants America to maintain the status quo—“no further deterioration in bilateral ties and no further sanctions,” he said.
‘The visit will be symbolic’
One way that Erdoğan hopes to improve U.S.-Turkish ties is by way of America’s allies, such as Israel and Armenia.
Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), who specializes on Turkey, told JNS that “the overtures to Israel and towards Armenia are an indirect way in Ankara’s perception to approach Washington. It’s not that these are necessarily the most important things for the U.S., but they are viewed favorably in Washington.”
Most recently, Erdoğan extended an invitation to Israeli President Isaac Herzog to visit Ankara. Herzog has not yet responded, but Lindenstrauss expects that he’ll accept, a decision she agrees with. “It would be risky not to accept because that might lead Turkey to take a harsher stance. Israel should respond favorably to the request for a presidential visit.”
Bekdil agreed that Herzog should accept the invitation. “The Israeli president does not have executive powers. The visit will be symbolic. If he does not go, Israel would be accused of closing a window of opportunity,” he explained. “If he goes, a reciprocal Turkish visit may have to follow suit—this time from a president with executive powers. Which means business—not literally business, per se, but a visit with a real political agenda. If he goes, also, it will have symbolic value in augmenting the spirit of the Abraham Accords.”
Erdoğan has also floated the idea of a return of the countries’ ambassadors. Lindenstrauss said Israel should accede to this request as well. “I don’t think that is a major policy concession by Jerusalem. This is something for the sake of trying to improve relations with an important actor in the Middle East. It’s worth the risk.”
‘Where we stand now is complete deadlock’
Erdoğan has almost made a habit of expelling Israeli ambassadors having done so in 2011 and then again in 2018, only two years after the Israeli ambassador had been restored in 2016. At that time, Erdoğan hailed the ambassador’s return as a “new phase” in relations. He used nearly the same terminology on Jan. 26 when he publicly invited Herzog, calling it the opening of “a new chapter” in relations. Such parallels have left Israeli officials apprehensive.
Bekdil said they have reason to be wary. Erdoğan’s practice of starting diplomatic processes he never intends to finish—a tactic he said the Turkish leader uses to appear to be moving in a certain direction—is not limited to Israel. “He has reset endless times Turkey’s problematic relations with the E.U. [European Union]. Where we stand now is complete deadlock. He started normalization with Armenia in 2009, which did not go through. He has opened ‘new pages’ with Greece a dozen or so times, only to come to the brink of conflict in 2020.”
As to whether Erdoğan can pull his chestnuts out of the fire before the election, Lindenstrauss said he is in a weak position and if the opposition parties choose the right candidate to run against him, she expects Erdoğan will lose in the first round of Turkey’s two-round system. She could only speculate as to whether Erdoğan would win the second round. She was more confident that his Justice and Development Party will remain the leading party, but “it will lose support. It will not be as strong as it was in previous elections.”
If Istanbul’s 2019 mayoral elections are any harbinger, Erdoğan and his party are in trouble. After a revote was called, the party suffered an embarrassing defeat. The opposition candidate’s margin of victory leapt from 13,000 votes in the first round to 775,000 in the second.
Bekdil said that Erdoğan is “theoretically” in a lot of trouble, but “he remains the most popular leader” and the opposition is “a patchwork of half a dozen parties.”
“A lot will depend on if Erdoğan can manipulate perceptions about the economic hardships,” he said.
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