What’s behind Erdogan’s statement that he wants better ties with Israel?

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“If there were no issues at the top level (in Israel), our ties could have been very different.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 14, 2020 (photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 14, 2020

(photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said on Friday that his country would like better ties with Israel but Israeli policy towards the Palestinians remains “unacceptable.”

“If there were no issues at the top level (in Israel), our ties could have been very different,” he said, adding that the two countries continued to share intelligence. “We would have liked to bring our ties to a better point.” But what is behind that statement?

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, told The Jerusalem Post that Erdogan has enjoyed good rapport with Trump, “who shielded him from tougher action, including sanctions demanded by both Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress.”

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According to Erdemir, the Turkish president, who is worried that the incoming Biden administration will be tougher on Turkey than the Trump administration has been, hopes to win favors through diplomatic posturing, “including a half-hearted outreach to Israel.”

“Erdogan also hopes that the chatter of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement will also disrupt the growing energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has deepened Ankara’s diplomatic isolation in the region,” he noted. “Erdogan’s consistent anti-Israel track-record and antisemitic outbursts over the years will make it difficult for him to convince his Israeli counterparts that there is real substance to his outreach.”

He went on to say that Turkey and Israel have great potential to establish win-win relations in economic, diplomatic, and security fields, “but Erdogan’s Islamist fixations will prevent any trust-based cooperation. As long as Erdogan continues to offer Hamas its most important base outside Gaza, Israeli officials will remain wary of the Turkish president’s overtures.”

Soner Cagaptay, author of Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East and senior fellow at the Washington Institute, told the Post that almost 10 years ago, Erdogan launched a new foreign policy, supporting Arab uprisings and also breaking with the US when and if necessary, and turning Turkey’s direction away from Europe to the Middle East. “The ultimate goal was to make Turkey a star power nation in the Middle East. That didn’t happen a decade later,” he said. “Turkey today has fewer friends in the Middle East ever in recent memory. In fact, with the exception of Qatar and half of Libya, he has no Middle Eastern friends. At the same time, it cannot rely on its traditional allies, Israel, US, or EU.”

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According to Cagaptay, another factor that drives Erdogan’s decision is that the Turkish President ”wants to charm Biden and the US Congress.”

“I followed the Turkish politics and US-Turkish ties for about two decades,” he noted. “I’ve never seen anti-Turkey sentiments rise so high in the US Congress. And I think Erdogan knows that if Turkey and Israel would get closer now, Israel being America’s closest ally in the Middle East, that will earn bonus points for him.”

He estimated that a real pivot in Turkish foreign policy is upcoming. “Of course, I’m not sure to what extent Israel will jump onto this and embrace Turkey because Emiratis, Egyptians, Greeks and others will insist that warming up ties with Turkey doesn’t come at the expense of good ties with them,” said Cagaptay.

Reuters contributed for this report

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