May 21, 2021 | The Algemeiner

Erdogan’s Backing of Hamas Precludes Turkey’s Rapprochement With Israel

May 21, 2021 | The Algemeiner

Erdogan’s Backing of Hamas Precludes Turkey’s Rapprochement With Israel

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a call in December for better ties with Israel.

“No surprise if Turkey-Israel relations normalize soon,” read the headline of a column in one of Turkey’s pro-government dailies last month. The author went as far as to claim, “it is safe to say that there is now no ‘conflict of interest’ between Turkey and Israel.”

That claim may have fallen on deaf ears in Jerusalem, given that Erdogan has been a vocal supporter of Hamas, and even publicly hosted designated terrorist leaders of the group at one of his presidential offices in Istanbul. Even so, Erdogan pursued his charade of outreach to the Jewish state, because the Turkish president is starved for allies in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The act continued right up until Hamas began to barrage Israeli cities with rocket fire. In late April, the government in Ankara invited Israel’s energy minister to attend its forum on innovative diplomacy, scheduled for June. Had the visit taken place, it would have been the most senior official contact in years between Israel and Turkey. Yet when the Jewish state began to launch retaliatory strikes against Hamas, the Turkish president rushed to slam Israel as a “terrorist state,” and uninvited the Israeli minister.

For almost a decade, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leader Erdogan and company took pride in Ankara’s growing regional and global isolation as “precious loneliness.” By 2020, this feeling of self-righteousness gave way to a fear of containment, as Turkey began to resent its exclusion from the Cairo-based EastMed Gas Forum, which brings Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority together. The Turkish economy’s ongoing tailspin and financial analysts’ warnings of a balance of payments crisis and sovereign default have forced Erdogan to try to mend regional ties and resuscitate foreign trade hurt by diplomatic spats.

Following Joe Biden’s presidential victory, fearing a stormy ride with the United States, Erdogan also felt a need to launch a diplomatic charm offensive, hoping to present Turkey as a constructive partner in the Middle East and beyond. This led to Ankara’s efforts to showcase its attempts to normalize relations with not only Israel, but also EgyptSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Erdogan’s ideological zeal and ongoing patronage of political Islam preclude an easy path to cordial relations with neighbors threatened by violent extremism. Under his 18-year rule, Turkey has become the most important base not only for the Muslim Brotherhood, but also for Hamas outside Gaza.

Last August, the British daily The Telegraph revealed that Ankara granted citizenship and passports to “senior operatives of a Hamas terrorist cell,” including Zacharia Najib, “the senior Hamas operative who oversaw a plot to assassinate the [then] mayor of Jerusalem, as well as other Israeli public figures.” Two months later, another British daily, The Timesreported that Hamas has set up a secret headquarters in Istanbul for carrying out cyberwarfare and counter-intelligence operations.

The Turkish president does not hide his support for Hamas.

In 2018, Erdogan tweeted to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “Hamas is not a terrorist organization,” but “a resistance movement” — views echoed the following year by the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Last year, Erdogan publicized through the Turkish presidency’s official Twitter account his hosting of two Hamas leaders — senior military leader Saleh al-Arouri and senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh, who are on Washington’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

This led to a strongly-worded objection from the State Department, the first time Washington has called out Turkey’s close relations with and ongoing support for Hamas; this followed in the footsteps of the Treasury Department’s 2019 designation of Zaher Jabarin, the Turkey-based head of Hamas’ Finance Office.

This state of affairs poses a stark contrast to the 1990s, during which Israel enjoyed robust diplomatic, security, and intelligence cooperation with Turkey. But today, Jerusalem has a sober assessment of the radical reconfiguration that Ankara’s foreign and security policy has experienced under Erdogan’s rule.

In 2016, then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon accused Turkey of “hosting in Istanbul the terror command post of Hamas abroad,” and warned that a diplomatic reset would be impossible as long as Ankara continued to host Hamas. Three years later, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen reportedly stated to his counterparts from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates that Turkey is a bigger threat than Iran.

For Israeli officials, therefore, it was no surprise that Erdogan’s Turkey joined Iran in strongly condemning the Abraham Accords, a US-brokered agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Turkey, which was the first Muslim majority country to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in 1949, ironically threatened suspending diplomatic ties with and withdrawing its ambassador from the United Arab Emirates in retaliation for establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Ankara accused Abu Dhabi of “betrayal,” and vowed, “The history and the conscience of the people in the region will never forget or forgive this hypocritical act.”

For those who have followed Erdogan’s rhetoric and policy towards Israel over the course of his career closely, the prediction by one of his senior advisors last December that Ankara and Jerusalem would restore full diplomatic relations by March this year lacked substance. These days, the Turkish president is back to his default position, striving to mobilize an international coalition to “give a strong and deterrent lesson to Israel.”

Back in 2016, when there was a similar bid to normalize Turkish-Israeli relations, I argued in a Times of Israel piece titled, “Real Rapprochement with Israel Requires Turkey to Tackle Anti-Semitism,” that a rapprochement would not be sustainable until there is an end to state-sanctioned vitriol in Turkey, and Ankara recognizes and confronts the pervasive antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment that has taken hold of wide segments of the Turkish citizenry. Things have only gotten worse since then. “A frenzy of anti-Israeli coverage in Turkish media has accompanied antisemitic attacks on the country’s small Jewish community,” reported Al-Monitor on Monday. The next day, the US State Department called out Erdogan for his “antisemitic comments,” referring to his remarks as “reprehensible” and “incendiary.”

The unsurprising reversal of fortunes in the latest iteration of Turkish-Israeli normalization should be a reminder not only to the naïvely trusting but also the cautiously optimistic watchers of bilateral relations that a new era of cordial relations will have to wait until Erdogan is voted out and Ankara ends it support for Hamas and other militant groups committed to imposing their supremacist worldview on the region.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Arab Politics Egypt Gulf States Israel Jihadism Palestinian Politics Turkey