Turkey’s Israel charm offensive is all about Russia
By ARIEL BEN SOLOMON
Skepticism remains if Erdogan wants rapprochement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest charm offensive toward Israel and his country’s Jews seems to show how a crisis over its downing of a Russian aircraft last month may help improve Istanbul’s dragging rapprochement efforts with the Jewish state.
After years of harsh rhetoric and actions against Israel, suddenly the ruling Islamist AK Party has allowed the first ever public Hanukkah event to take place on Sunday.
Erdogan followed that up on Monday by speaking positively of normalizing relations with Israel.
Israeli, Turkish relations soured after a deadly 2010 incident, in which 10 Turkish citizens were killed as Israel enforced a maritime blockade on Gaza. The sides have held contacts to overcome that rift, and now these rather slow moving efforts may have been boosted indirectly by Istanbul’s crisis with Moscow. More than half of Turkey’s gas and 10 percent of its oil come from Russia, the British Telegraph reported this month.
Perhaps Erdogan is thinking about offsetting the potential loss of Russian energy by rekindling a past proposal to house a pipeline though which it would help export Israel’s offshore natural gas to Europe, experts say. Erdogan has set the bar high, though, demanding that Israel curtail a years old embargo on Hamas-ruled Gaza, in which Israel closely controls the territory’s imports and exports in a measure aimed at preventing weapons smuggling.
Some experts were also skeptical about whether Erdogan wanted a rapprochement with Israel at a time when Iran has been boosting its standing in the region. “It remains to be seen if a pragmatic streak is left in Erdogan who is increasingly motivated by Islamist and neo-Ottoman impulses,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told The Jerusalem Post. Erdogan’s campaign against Syrian President Bashar Assad is not going well, and “Iran is becoming stronger in the region, and he opened a new front with Russia,” Inbar said.
Still Inbar feels: “Israel has many things to offer: its gas fields could become a new source of energy; its clout in Washington could reduce some of the criticism against Erdogan’s erratic behavior versus Russia; and it could become a powerful regional balance against a rising Iran – something all other Sunni powers fear.” Selin Nasi, a columnist for the Jewish Turkish weekly Salom, and contributor to Hurriyet Daily News told the Post the public Hanukka ceremonies had local Jews “feeling euphoric, notwithstanding the foreign policy agenda attached to it.”
Nasi saw the gesture as “a perfect move to polish the country’s image abroad amid mounting criticism regarding human rights, and to calm world markets all at once.”
“Erdogan adopted a rather soft rhetoric on Israel and avoided political bickering” during the campaign for the general election this past summer despite the tensions on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, the Jewish Turkish intellectual said.
Nasi sees the crisis over the downing of the Russian aircraft as “without a doubt” a key impetus behind Turkey’s moves toward Israel though she does not see Israel meeting Turkey’s condition of lifting the restricted access to Gaza, especially during the current wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. But, she asserted, Turkey has an interest in balancing the axis of Russia, Cyprus, and Egypt in the Mediterranean. “A thaw between Turkey and Israel will help Ankara overcome its regional isolation,” Nasi said.
While Israeli, Turkish relations don’t seem likely to speedily return to the warmth or closeness of a decade or so ago, steps may be taken to normalize relations at the diplomatic level, beginning with an exchange of ambassadors, Nasi said.
Nasi added, though, that “we all know that as long as the ideological Islamist conservative core persists at the government level, Turkey-Israel ties will remain vulnerable to crisis, arising out of tensions between Israel and Palestine.”