In his paper “Dealing With the New Turkey” (The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, August 2021), Ambassador James F. Jeffrey has tried to address a major challenge which some of the Western governments have to deal with in recent years, namely the policies of Turkey under Erdoǧan.
While I can agree with most of the points Ambassador Jeffrey has raised, his paper suffers from one major flaw. He argues that contrary to popular belief, and despite Erdoğan’s occasional Islamic and neo-Ottoman overtones, Turkey under his rule is continuing its traditional foreign policy, including toward Israel. But this has not been the case. Ambassador Jeffrey does not mention Turkey’s sponsorship of terror groups on its soil and explains away the warning that it has become a global center for Islamic extremism. “But unlike Iran, in the case of Turkey, it is primarily a political show,” claims Jeffrey, and he asserts that “it arguably has had an effect in one place, Libya, but even there, Turkish policy can be explained by more traditional, national goals.”
If there is anything that is not a “political show” for Erdoğan and his regime, it is his deep ideological commitment to empower Islamism in the world. He is continuously pursuing this goal, among other means, through his support for jihadi terrorist organizations.
Erdoğan’s Ideological Credentials
In August 1993, when he served as the head of the Islamist Welfare party’s Istanbul branch, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was interviewed by a local newspaper called Yörünge. “Turkey’s recognition of Israel is a serious fatality in our history. It is a black mark on our history,” Erdoğan claimed and stressed that he did not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a legitimate state.
Like other Islamist ideologies, let it be the Iranian Islamism or the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood brand, Erdoğan hails from the Millî Görüş, a Turkish religious-political movement which looks upon Israel as a little protégé of the US and its “illegitimate offspring.” After he rose to power in 2002, Erdoğan knew that he had to first maintain good relations with the West, in particular with the US. He immediately introduced himself as committed to the alliance. He did so not because he identifies with the West’s values, but because he had to establish his rule first. As part of his scheme, he also maintained good relations with Israel and even paid an official visit to Jerusalem in 2005. In 2007, refusing to be intimidated by the military establishment, Erdoğan nominated Abdullah Gül as the candidate of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the presidential election, while his party won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections. Then came the Ergenekon (“Sledgehammer”) show trials, which helped Erdoğan neutralize the secular high command of the military. After taking the military down, he did not have to pretend anymore and could pursue his Islamist mission.
Decision makers in Western capitals have ignored the Turkish case for too long. They dismissed the ideological roots of the problem and preferred to look through the diplomatic lens. Today, Turkey is the largest enabler of Islamism in the region. Ankara supports jihadists, funding the anti-Western (and antisemitic) ideological Muslim Brotherhood networks, and spreads the extremist Sunni version of the current ruling elite. Most Israelis are probably familiar with the Turkish financial and logistic support for Hamas; however, the scope of Turkey’s support for designated terrorist groups is much broader. For example, since 2019, the US treasury has sanctioned jihadist financiers in Turkey in seven cases. As part of attempts to Islamicize Nigeria, Turkey supplied weapons to Boko Haram. Turkey was fueling not only Sunni extremism but also the Iranian version of Shiite extremism. After the US toughened its sanctions on Iran, Erdoğan masterminded a plan to allow Iran to bypass the sanctions, which some claim to be the biggest sanctions-evasion scheme in recent history, worth tens of billions of dollars.
The Latest Political Maneuver From Ankara
In late 2020, Turkey made new calculations in its foreign policy and started signaling its desire to mend ties with the West and its former allies in the region. Growing isolation and a shrinking economy brought the government to rethink its regional foreign policies. Ankara is now attempting to improve ties with the moderate Sunni camp and even Israel. However, it seems that Erdoǧan’s endeavor to warm Turkey’s relations with Israel could not undo his own antisemitic obsession. During Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, the Turkish president accused Israelis of killing children and sucking their blood, referencing the antisemitic canard of the blood libel. Israeli officials were shocked by the antisemitic remarks. Instead of offering mediation, or at least calling both sides for calm, Erdoğan embarked on antisemitic hate speeches during the operation. After failing to reach out to the elected Bennett-Lapid government, Erdoğan approached Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, and called him on July 12 to congratulate him on being sworn into office.
What Should Israel Do?
Ambassador Jeffrey suggests that the continuation of diplomatic relations and incremental growth in bilateral trade with Israel is evidence that Erdoğan’s Islamic pretensions are mainly a political show. The fact of the matter is that Erdoğan, to his regret, must work within the framework of the modern system that has accepted and recognized Israel. His dealings with Israel are driven by sheer pragmatism, not by a change of heart. He does so not because he wants to, but because he has no choice, knowing that he depends on the international community.
Ankara’s attempts for normalization and improved ties with Israel are short term and tactical. Israel should not offer Erdoğan a diplomatic lifeline, especially when he is in electoral trouble, and Israel should not accept his warming signals, which are nothing more than optics. Instead Israel should signal to the Turkish people at large that Israel harbors no ill feeling toward them, and it is only the ideology of the AKP leaders that has led to alienation. Lines of communication— albeit discreet—should be kept open with the remnants of the secular Kemalist establishment.