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Letting bygones be bygones
Published in Ahram Online on 03 - 08 - 2021

Some weeks ago, after over a decade of arctic temperatures between Ankara and Tel Aviv, the former began to grope for ways to sidle up to the latter. This was prompted at least in part by the fact that Israel was developing much closer relations with Turkey's historic enemy, Greece. Athens and Tel Aviv had signed a series of cooperation agreements in defence and energy, which included the construction of natural gas pipelines in the Eastern Mediterranean. For this reason, rekindling relations with Israel became an imperative of the first order for Ankara. Evidence of this thinking is to be found in Foreign Ministry officials' statements and remarks calling for urgent efforts to mend the rift, so that Turkey would not be left behind or isolated as the train of normalisation with Arab Gulf countries pushed full steam ahead. The continued freeze was exacting an exorbitant political toll, they warned, adding that Turkish officials needed to take the first step.
And so it came to be. In April, the presidential palace gave several positive signals towards those its principal occupant had often called "terrorist occupiers". It expressed a desire to clear the "fog filled" air with the Hebrew state, then it invited the Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz to the Antalya Diplomatic Forum. Held "on 18-20 June 2021 in a beautiful Antalya resort on the coast of the Mediterranean," as the ADF's webpage says, the title of the forum was, significantly, "Innovative Diplomacy: New Era, New Approaches."
Mouthpieces of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were optimistic about the results of such overtures. Above all, they had their hopes set on positive responses from the other side of the Atlantic, which would certainly welcome a rapprochement between Washington's Israeli and Turkish allies. But then the Israeli war on Gaza erupted on 10 May, bursting that brief bubble of hope as Erdogan gave vent to his vitriol against Israel and Israelis, using expressions, moreover, that earned him hasty rebukes from Washington and elsewhere. Three days after the assault began, Turkey withdrew the invitation to Steinitz – so much for turning a new leaf.
Or so it seemed. Two days after Erdogan met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his spokesman told the press that the Turkish president had phoned his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog to congratulate him on his election on 7 July. It was the first communication between the two sides on that level since 2017. According to the spokesman, the two leaders discussed matters related to energy, tourism and regional security, and they emphasised the importance of dialogue in overcoming disputes and the need to open a new page in Turkish-Israeli relations. Erdogan then posted a statement on his social networking sites in which he stressed "the importance of Turkish-Israeli cooperation for the sake of the security and stability of the region." Herzog reciprocated with a tweet echoing the same sentiment. After the phone call with Erdogan, Herzog took pains to reassure Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou that "any improvement in Israel's relations with Turkey won't come at the expense of Greece," the Axios news site reported on 21 July, citing Israeli officials.
Is there, indeed, a possibility that Ankara and Tel Aviv can overcome their profound differences and start over?
Views vary, but all agree that there are deep-seated mutual doubts and suspicions that will be difficult to overcome. The most pessimistic estimate places the chances of reconciliation at minimal to zero, especially now that Netanyahu is gone. They believe that the new Israeli leaders, Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid are likely to be more forthright in their criticisms of Erdogan than their predecessor. True, Netanyahu had locked horns with Erdogan many times, but Israeli-Turkish trade also increased under Netanyahu. The paradox is not so difficult to grasp. In many ways Erdogan and Netanyahu are mirror images of each other. They balance populism with pragmatism. They engage in loud verbal sparring while essential economic bonds continue calmly and steadily.
Bennet and Lapid, on the other hand, who are strongly anti-Erdogan and more open about it, are unlikely to take Netanyahu's two-track approach. Some predict that the post-Netanyahu government may officially recognise the Armenian Genocide, in fact. Both Bennet, who has used this issue as ammunition in his attacks against Erdogan before, and Lapid have said more than once that Israel should recognise the Armenian Genocide. Naturally, if the Israeli government takes this step, it will deliver a debilitating blow to the Erdogan regime's plans to revive relations.
Here, in Turkey, anti-AKP opposition circles agree that the prospects of reconciliation are poor. They cite Israeli political analysts, such as Eyal Zisser, a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University, who recently addressed the subject in an article in the Israel Hayom newspaper. As reported on the Ahval news site, Zisser cautioned that Israel needed to be careful so as not to be caught off guard when Erdogan engages in another vitriolic tirade against it, despite ongoing efforts for rapprochement. He attributed Ankara's shift in tack and tone to "Erdogan's combative and contrarian policies towards the entire world [which] have led him to a dead end," referring to Turkey's ailing economy, the uncertainty surrounding its military involvement in Syria and Libya, and tensions in US relations.
Recalling his experience "in a number of small meetings with Erdogan, during the days in which he still met with Israeli leaders," Foreign Israeli Chief of Staff Jacob Dayan said, in an op ed piece in Ha'aretz, "In all of these meetings I felt one thing clearly: the conspicuous lack of affection for Israel, and even hatred, did not come from his head but from his heart." He continues, "The cold wind blowing in the direction of Turkey from the Biden administration, which will only grow stronger, the failing economy and the Turkish vision of the Middle East, which has collapsed, may be causing a tactical change in Erdogan's attitude towards Israel, but this change will always be only tactical, not strategic."
Observing how one telephone exchange between Erdogan and Herzog had changed the spirit of commentators, Dayan said, "Can a leopard change its spots? Highly doubtful. I don't rule out a tactical narrowing of differences. Israel also has weighty interests in such closer relations, but we need to go there with our eyes open, and know that the man who provided a base for Hamas activists and permitted the Mavi Marmara to sail to Gaza will not suddenly turn into Anwar Sadat or King Hussein."
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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