israel and Turkey flags. Image: iStock
Israel and Turkey could upgrade their diplomatic relations now that the former has a new government, but Ankara's support for the Palestinians remains an issue. Image: iStock

The upgrade of Turkey-Israel diplomatic ties to an ambassadorial level has not come as a surprise, and it is by no means an extension of the Abraham Accords. In essence, Turkey is posting a new envoy to Tel Aviv after a gap of two years. The downgrading of ties was a mark of protest over Israeli forces killing dozens of Palestinians in clashes on the Gaza border in 2018. 

Recall of ambassadors is a form of diplomatic protest, and it is not uncommon. India and Pakistan routinely practice it. By the way, despite downgrading of the embassies to chargés d’affaires, Turkey and Israel not only continued with trade relations but also with intelligence-sharing arrangements.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the media on Friday that Ankara was seeking to have better relations with Israel, but he also criticized Israel’s top leadership and condemned its “merciless acts” toward Palestinians.

In his words, “We would like to bring our ties to a better point. The Palestine policy is our red line. It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable. The main problem right now is about individuals at the top. If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different. Our relations with Israel are not cut off at the intelligence level – they continue.”  

Simply put, Ankara considers it advantageous to revert to full-spectrum diplomacy with  regional states at a particularly tumultuous time when Turkey faces a multitude of challenges.

Interestingly, the ambassador-designate to Israel, Ufuk Ulutas, is not a career diplomat but a think-tanker who spent time in Israel as a student – and above all, he is a fellow traveler of Erdogan’s ruling Islamist party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party).

Clearly, this is not a move to change the directions of Turkey’s regional policies but instead it aims to optimize them. There is no question of Erdogan turning his back on the Palestine cause or abandoning Turkey’s support of Hamas. Reports say Hamas leaders live in Turkey.

In the past, Erdogan had sought to act as a mediator between Hamas and Israel – a role that Qatar also once assumed. But a paradigm shift in the Israeli attitude is unlikely. In Israeli eyes, Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, remains a “terrorist” organization.

Suffice to say, the “red line” in the Turkish calculus on Israel will continue, as Erdogan put it, and it inherently caps the relationship. Islamism is the lifeblood of the AKP’s ideology and it is integral to Erdogan’s political platform.

But having said that, Erdogan also realizes that Turkey stands to gain by recapturing its heritage as a “moderate Islamist” country. (Former US president Barack Obama once recommended Turkey as the role model for the Muslim world.) Of course, Turkey’s antipathy toward Israel has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Erdogan’s problem is with Zionism. That was what he alluded to in his remarks on Friday. 

Equally, the upgrade of ties with Israel is not a stand-alone diplomatic move by Ankara. There are signs of new thinking in Ankara – rather, “course correction.” Thus Erdogan has mellowed his rhetoric toward the European partners – and the European Union is reciprocating.  

Turkey’s relations with Russia remain friendly and close at working level, especially at the highest level of leadership, and although Ankara is more assertive lately in the pursuit of its interests in the “regional commons” where the two countries’ interests overlap, there is mutual understanding to ensure that differences do not become disputes.

(Importantly, Turkey refuses to reconsider its S-400 missile deal with Russia, US threats notwithstanding.)

Again, Turkey has shown interest in fence-mending with Saudi Arabia; there is a pause in its “proactivism” in Libya and northern Syria (with signs of drawdown in Idlib). Above all, while Turkey condemned the recent US sanctions, it refrained from knee-jerk reactions and instead asked Washington to reconsider, preferring a “wait and see” attitude during the transition in the White House. 

A columnist in the pro-government Turkish paper Daily Sabah wrote last week, “Ankara still wants to be a part of the Western alliance while maintaining its good relations with Russia and countries in the Middle East. This is clearly what multipolar foreign policy requires.

“This policy benefits not only Ankara but also the US and the European Union as well, since Turkey is strategically located at a point where it can play a very important role between the Middle East and the West.”

Such a “course correction” has become necessary as Erdogan’s attention turns to addressing the deepening economic crisis in Turkey, which could impact his political fortunes if left unattended, were he indeed to call for early elections as a matter of political expediency. (Turkey last had parliamentary elections in June 2018 although they were due only in November 2019.) 

Erdogan recently promised to bring in structural reforms to break the “triangle of evil” of interest rates, inflation and exchange rates. He is also dusting up his jaded legacy as a great reformer, which would of course entail a shift in his statecraft to prioritizing domestic issues. 

Thus Erdogan promised a slate of judicial and economic reforms last month, leading to expectations of the possible release of politicians, including Kurdish activists and human-rights advocates, from jail. Erdogan said 2021 would be “the year of democratic and economic reforms” and that efforts to present the reforms to parliament would move “as soon as possible.”

“We hope to overcome troubles from economic attacks and the pandemic measures as soon as possible. By speeding up structural reforms, we are determined to form a system based on production and employment and breaking the interest rates, inflation and exchange rates triangle of evil.… We are not carrying out democratic reforms because anyone forced us to, but because our people deserve them,” Erdogan said.  

This charismatic politician is acutely conscious that his massive mandate and his towering popularity ultimately depend on his record as a transformative leader. The bottom line, therefore, is that the secret talks between Turkey and Israel in the most recent months, including at the level of spy chiefs, have a much bigger backdrop than analysts are inclined to accept. 

Turkey’s problem with Israel must be traced to 2010 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a deadly military operation by elite commandos against a Turkish flotilla in international waters carrying relief supplies for Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of at least nine people and the injuries of at least 50. 

Without doubt, it was a mindless act of excessive use of military force against a quasi-official Turkish venture that had the backing of the ruling elite, which Israel could have handled differently, tactfully. Ankara took it as a stab in the back, as Turkey used to be Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world and the Ottomans had left a unique history of providing succor to persecuted Jews escaping from the Western world.  

Suffice to say, Erdogan, a quintessential pragmatist, simply relegated the broken relationship to the back burner but never quite threw it away. Of course, to construe his latest move to reassign an envoy to Tel Aviv to be a volte face on his part is a travesty. 

Any meeting of minds between Erdogan and Netanyahu can only happen in the fullness of time, given the deep scars in the Turkish psyche and the slur on the country’s national honor that the latter brazenly inflicted for reasons best known to him

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.