April 21, 2023 | Washington Examiner

What does Turkey’s Erdogan want with Israel?

April 21, 2023 | Washington Examiner

What does Turkey’s Erdogan want with Israel?

Following the recent escalation of violence in Israel, particularly at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey used a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to remark that “the Islamic world should be united against Israel’s attacks in Palestine” and that “trampling on the Al-Aqsa Mosque is our red line.”

At first glance, this stance by Erdogan is puzzling. After all, since 2022, he has sought to rebuild substantive ties with Israel. In addition to the full restoration of diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level, Ankara hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog as a sign that Turkey wanted to improve its relationship with Israel. Turkey’s diplomatic corps has also been busy, particularly in Washington, where Ankara’s ambassador has been touring think tanks and American Jewish organizations. Ankara seeks to make a good impression with the Jewish American lobby, presumably hoping that it will put in a supportive word for Turkey as it seeks to acquire new F-16 fighter jets and other defense-related equipment.

Yet, by verbally rebuking Israel, Erdogan suggests he is not serious about rebuilding his relationship with that nation.

On the surface, Erdogan sees a politically weakened Israel. The continuing protests against Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government have tarnished Israel’s reputation abroad even though the mass protests are an expression of Israel’s vibrant democracy. From Erdogan’s perspective, taking a shot at Israel serves his reelection bid. The Israeli government is too focused on shoring up domestic stability to enter into a verbal back-and-forth with Erdogan. For Erdogan, extolling an anti-Israeli narrative plays well with his conservative and religious base. Erdogan needs every vote if he is to win reelection in May, and this rhetorical outburst is just that, an outburst that likely costs him nothing, especially with a largely silent Israeli response.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that Erdogan was raised as a politician in Turkey’s political Islamist movement: the “National View.” In addition to being vehemently anti-Western, the National View is vehemently antisemitic and anti-Israeli. Top line: While Erdogan may have made several perfunctory moves to restore ambassadorial ties with the Israeli state, Erdogan is no friend of Israel. Nor, for that matter, is he respectful of the Jewish people and faith. Nothing is likely to change his perspective.

Erdogan’s sole interest in restoring ties with Israel is part of his desire to ride the Jewish lobby in Washington so Congress will look more favorably upon Ankara and remove its strong objections to selling weapons. This is the bottom line. Unbeknownst to Erdogan, however, is that every policy wonk that follows this bilateral relationship in Washington sees right through Erdogan’s intentions. So does Congress, and so does Israel.

If Turkey is to have a real chance of rebuilding a strong bilateral relationship with Israel, something which it once had, the country must elect a new leader. If Ankara would like a friendly Washington to sell it weapons, it will have to engage in a way that U.S. policymakers perceive to be genuine and respectful.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program. Follow him on Twitter @SinanCiddi. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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