Turkey's Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, appears to be on yet another hoax charm offensive: he is faking the restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel and Egypt, and even signalling peace with President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria -- in addition to his earlier reconciliation efforts with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He needs to look pretty to his Middle East nemeses to A) avoid further Western sanctions, B) wink at Washington, and C) raise some international cash flows into the badly ailing Turkish economy that threatens to end his reign after two decades of uninterrupted rule.
It is true that foreign policy is often more about interests, rather than love and hate. Erdoğan, however, represents a school of his own: pragmatism in dire times blended with high doses of ideology and emotion. He once suggested that Zionism must be designated a crime against humanity. The civilized world was shocked.
He also called then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "an invader, a terrorist, an oppressor and a thief" in 2018. Erdoğan's foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, not to be outdone, called Netanyahu a "baby killer."
In 2018, Erdoğan said he did not deem Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip, a terrorist organization, and repeated his earlier words:
"Our support to the resistance of the Palestinians upsets them [Israelis and the West]. But in this context I do not deem Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas is one of the resistance movements working to liberate the occupied territories of the Palestinians."
May 2010 was a landmark that history will probably not soon be able to change. The pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement and the pro-Hamas Turkish Humanitarian Relief Fund organized a six-ship flotilla to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza to break Israel's blockade of the territory to prevent proscribed offensive weapons from being smuggled in. The ships refused an Israeli offer to deliver the goods via the port of Ashdod. On May 31, Israeli naval special forces intercepted the convoy in international waters. They took control of five of the ships without resistance. However, some activists on the Mavi Marmara, a large Turkish passenger ferry that was the main ship in the flotilla, attacked the Israeli commandos. The confrontation resulted in nine Turks and one Turkish-American killed, more than 20 passengers wounded, and 10 Israeli commandos wounded. Of course, the Mavi Marmara, turned out to be loaded with offensive weapons.
Erdoğan prescribed punishment for Israel: "Today (May 30) is a turning point. They once again showed their ability to perpetrate slaughters ... Israel had to 'absolutely be punished by all means,'" he said.
Then-Turkish President Abdullah Gul, echoing the same pessimism, added: "Turkish-Israeli relations can never be as before from now on."
Erdoğan and his ministers pledged to isolate Israel internationally. Instead, it was Turkey that was isolated by the international community, including the European Union, the US, Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Erdoğan also promised that Turkey would open an embassy to [a wished-for] state of Palestine in Jerusalem.
Actually, in the past decade, Turkish efforts to isolate a country internationally in the region had been spectacularly successful; but that country was not Israel. Instead, Erdoğan found himself in complete international isolation as his regional rivals, including Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt, teamed up around the exploitation of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, leaving Turkey as the odd one out. Erdoğan was grudgingly forced to make a U-turn.
In February, Erdoğan hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Ankara. Soon afterwards, Turkey and Israel agreed to appoint ambassadors, ending their ambassador-less diplomatic relations since 2018. So far, so good. All the same, a new parameter entered into the rocky equation while peacemakers on both sides were prematurely celebrating.
Netanyahu's conservative Likud Party and its religious and right-wing allies marked a clear victory in Israel's Nov. 1 election, thanks largely as a reaction to stepped-up Palestinian terrorism. On Nov. 25, Likud signed its first coalition deal with Itamar Ben-Gvir's right-wing Jewish Power Party. Despite initial signs of quiet in Ankara and Jerusalem, the new quarrel theater of Erdoğan vs. Netanyahu may jeopardize the new, infant ambassador-level relationship between the two countries.
No matter how much Erdoğan's new policy calculus may try to conceal it, the bad blood between the Turkish and Israeli leaders is likely to remain where it is, possibly lasting until Erdoğan's political legacy has been completely deleted from the Turkish political psyche.
In late October, during a visit to Ankara, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz urged Erdoğan to expel the Hamas leaders residing in Turkey. Hamas, a proxy client of Iran, was officially designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. in 1997 and is openly committed to Israel's destruction.
In November, Turkey refused to comply with Israel's request to expel the Hamas leaders living there. Responding to a question from MPs, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said Ankara does not view Hamas as a terror group and refused to expel its members. "We didn't satisfy any [Israeli] request on Hamas, because we don't perceive Hamas as a terror group," Çavuşoğlu said.
There will always be the risk of Turkish-Israeli friction, including the possibility of a new break up, as long as any Islamist regime in Turkey refuses fully to respect the Jewish state's sovereignty and admit that Hamas is a terrorist entity that aims to annihilate Israel by any means necessary (see the Hamas charter).
Come May 2023, with the commemoration day of the "Nakba" ("catastrophe") -- meaning the loss by five invading Arab armies of the war they had initiated to try to destroy Israel in 1948 -- there is likely to be a new escalation of hostilities with a fresh wave of Hamas violence, and Israel's response to Hamas's violence, then Turkey's response to Israel's response. Erdoğan will try to exploit this in Turkey's June presidential elections.
Once again, Erdoğan plans to be shining as the anti-Zionist, Islamist neo-Ottoman sultan, the savior of oppressed Muslims!
It is a Turkish opera buffa that has gotten old, stale and boring.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.