Opinion |

Should Turkey’s Erdogan Fear Israel’s New Government?

Turkey’s president has outlived, in office, sparring partner Netanyahu. But the long-standing hostility of Israel’s new coalition members to Turkey's strongman could derail Erdogan's plans to rehabilitate relations

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a press conference after the NATO summit in Brussels last month
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a press conference after the NATO summit in Brussels last monthCredit: YVES HERMAN/ REUTERS
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

The Bennett-Lapid coalition government is now nearing the end of its first month in place, a jolt for the skeptics who never even gave it a real chance at ousting the once all-powerful prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had served for 12 years straight.

In fact, it would be hard to find a single issue that unites the coalition bedfellows of the pro-settlement far right Yamina party with the far-left human rights-based Meretz party.

Who could have even imagined the stridently secular nationalist Avigdor Lieberman would one day be sitting round the cabinet table with Mansour Abbas, who heads the Islamist Ra’am party that backs the Palestinian right of return? Ra’am made history by being the first Arab Israeli party to enter a coalition, giving Palestinian citizens of the state a voice in government.

While the new government is still relatively precarious domestically , as we saw with the government’s failed attempt to renew the controversial Citizenship Law (which limits the unification of Palestinian families within Israel), the parties seem to have a much stronger sense of common purpose when it comes to regional and foreign policy issues.

Last week, Yair Lapid made his first visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he officially opened the new Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, and then moved on to Dubai to open an Israeli consulate.

As foreign minister, Lapid will have his work cut out, first focusing on strengthening ties with Egypt and Jordan, which Netanyahu neglected to a great extent. This is even more crucial now considering Hamas’ enhanced political clout following the popular kudos it won during May’s confrontation with Israel.

Palestinian Muslim worshippers wave the Palestinian and the Hamas flags during clashes with Israeli security forces in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compoundCredit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Still, it seems that Lapid is genuinely interested in turning a new leaf with the region, tweeting that "Israel wants peace with its neighbors, with all its neighbors," a public statement that Israel wants to go even further than the stronger-than-ever-before relations with certain Arab countries in the region. Soon after, Defense Minister Benny Gantz offered neighboring Lebanon humanitarian aid amid its spiraling economic crisis.

The one country in the region that might have the most to lose now that Netanyahu is out of power is Turkey.

That may seem surprising: there was no lost love between Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Netanyahu, both of whom engaged in numerous public spats on Twitter during the last few years with Netanyahu calling him a "dictator" with the blood of "countless Kurds” on his hands, and Erdogan accusing him of being a "tyrant who slaughters 7-year-old Palestinian kids."

The number of mutual crises Turkey and Israel endured during the 12 years Netanyahu was in power were plentiful. This started with the 2010 Mavi Marmara fiasco and its fallout, and ended with Turkey once again withdrawing its ambassador in 2018, following the outbreak of violence that accompanied U.S. President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

However, we need to remember Netanyahu, similarly to Erdogan, always balanced populism and pragmatism: very public debacles in parallel to quieter and substantial economic ties between the two states, which have only grown and expanded.

Erdogan himself even publicly stated that bilateral relations were based on significant mutual interests: Israel benefitted from ties with Turkey, but "[W]e, too, should admit that we need a country like Israel."

By 2016, when Turkey mended ties, Netanyahu became even more convinced that ironically it was Turkey that needed Israel in order to expand its influence among the Palestinians. By providing visas for Turkish NGOs and media outlets, Israel is the gatekeeper to Turkish influence within Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

What might surprise some is that it was Netanyahu who, in government discussions, consistently acted as Erdogan’s defender. He pushed back against his staunchest allies and coalition partners (many of whom now hold top positions in the new government) who harshly criticized his reluctance to rock the boat with Ankara too roughly.

‘We are grateful to you’: A March 2013 billboard thanking then-Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan after Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkey for the Mavi Mamara incident.Credit: AFP

There are numerous examples. Back in 2013, now-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett voiced concern over Netanyahu’s apology to Erdogan over the Mavi Marmara incident; then his Habayit Hayehudi party colleague Ayelet Shaked (now interior minister) called Erdogan "an Islamist antisemite."

In 2014 Erdogan lashed out at Shaked, comparing her to Hitler, and, for good measure, said Israeli war crimes were worse than the Nazis.

A masked member of Hamas stands in front of a banner depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a protest in Central Gaza Strip June 4, 2010, against Israel's interception of Gaza-bound sCredit: REUTERS

In 2018, after Erdogan ordered the ambassador’s return to Ankara, Bennett once again voiced his disdain for the Turkish leader, declaring that "Erdogan is soaked in Hamas terror from head to toe," and reiterated that "It was a severe mistake" to sign the Marmara compensation deal, worth tens of millions of dollars, with him.

Following Erdogan’s harsh reaction to the Knesset passing the Jewish Nation State bill, Bennett called Erdogan a dictator who "hunts down and murders members of the Kurdish minority in his country and elsewhere."

The blatant animus for Erdogan within the new government does not stop with Bennett and Shaked.

Avigdor Lieberman, now finance minister called Erdogan an "antisemitic bully" while serving as Netanyahu’s foreign minister in 2015, accusing Europe of cowardice reminiscent of the 1930s for not taking him on. When Erdogan claimed Israel’s hand was behind the coup that felled Egypt’s Morsi, Lieberman identified Erdogan as the ideological heir to Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.

The voices arrayed against Erdogan aren’t confined to Israel’s ideological right-wing, either. They’re just as loud in the politically centrist and some leftist parties too.

Indeed, “Erdogan” functioned as a slur thrown by the then-opposition against then-PM Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian instincts. At one of the largest anti-Netanyahu protests in 2019, demonstrators wore Ottoman-style red fezzes, carrying portraits of the Turkish president with signs that read: "Erdogan is already here."

The protest in Tel Aviv, a portrait of Turkish President Erdogan, May 25, 2019. Credit: Ilan Assayag

At that rally, attended by tens of thousands, Yair Lapid, now-Alternative Prime Minister, and head of the centrist Yesh Atid, didn’t beat around the bush in his characterization of Erdogan – and the threat of Erdoganization in Israel:

"We will not let you [Netanyahu] be Erdogan, we will not have a Turkish dictator here, we will not let you destroy the country!"

Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Kachol Lavan and now defense minister, followed up: "We will not let Israel become the private mansion of a Sultan."

Despite the analogies, the distance between Israeli warnings and rhetoric and Turkish reality was, however, clarified when Turkish opposition leader, Meral Aksener, jabbed at Erdogan earlier this year, daring to compare him to Netanyahu. Erdogan himself is now suing her for defamation and damages.

Incoming PM Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.Credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS

Such a constellation of anti-Erdogan voices in the Knesset could offer the most left-wing party in government, Meretz, its best opportunity yet to realize a decades-long campaign: Israel’s recognition of the Armenian genocide.

To be clear: Meretz’s push to recognize the Ottoman Turks’ 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide transcends Turkish-Israeli relations and is connected to its humanistic worldview that, as post-Holocaust Jews, there is a special moral obligation to recognize other prominent genocides in modern history.

If the government actually succeeds in holding the patchwork of parties together until next year’s Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, there is a good chance Israel will recognize the genocide at last.

Both co-prime ministers, Bennett – who has used the Armenian genocide recognition as ammunition for his anti-Erdogan outbursts – and Lapid have expressed their support for recognition in the past (and Israeli society has already pretty much accepted the idea). Lapid has recently called on Israel to follow the path trod by U.S. President Biden’s recognition.

Armenian children holding signs as they take part in a memorial march in Jerusalem's Old City in 2005 to commemorate the Armenian genocideCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Lapid’s language of norms was in sync with Meretz’ long campaign: "I will continue to fight for Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide; it is our moral responsibility as the Jewish state." Again, despite his sound and fury against Erdogan, it was always Netanyahu who had prevented recognition from happening during his premiership.

So where now? Just at the end of last year, Turkey was showing signs that it wished to repair its relations with Israel, however, this was dashed by May’s Israel-Hamas violence.

But with Netanyahu out and a new government in, Turkey is going to have to reassess. A coalition packed with far more explicitly belligerent anti-Erdogan voices may not be nearly as willing to accept the two-track status quo reached under Netanyahu, where Turkey can bash Israel while business continues as usual.

It is Turkey that will need to take the initiative to press for relations, as Israel has less of an incentive to invest long term in a country beset by political instability and a very fragile economic environment. Israel knows that Turkey is keen to re-establish some kind of regional consensus accepting a fairer role and rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, and strengthening ties with Egypt.

Yair Lapid speaks at the inauguration of the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi, on Tuesday.Credit: Shlomi Amsalem/GPO

Rehabilitating ties with Israel could also provide Ankara with important leverage to recover faltering relations with the Gulf as well. Earlier this year, Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, expressed Turkey’s interest in warming up relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was a major shift, or climbdown, from Erdogan’s threats last year to downgrade ties with Abu Dhabi over recognizing Israel.

After all of Erdogan’s bombast over normalization, it is certainly ironic that Turkey would be seeking to reap the benefits of that same normalization process: better ties with Israel helping Turkey get recertified as ‘kosher’ for economic relations with the Gulf.

If Turkey genuinely wants a new regional beginning, Israel would be a great place to start. For that to happen, however, it needs to ditch Çavuşoğlu’s failed policy which remade the country’s diplomatic corps into an explicitly ideological and intemperate team tasked with glorifying the government, in place of its former incarnation as a professional cadre.

And if Erdogan really wants to continue to play an important and influential role on the Palestinian front, in times of conflict as well as quiet, then perhaps it’s time to relinquish the ephemeral populist peaks of a duet of slurs with whoever is governing Israel, which turn out to be no more than empty words for the Palestinians.

Louis Fishman is an associate professor at Brooklyn College who divides his time between Turkey, the U.S. and Israel, and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. His latest book is "Jewish and Palestinians in the Late Ottoman Era 1908-1914." Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv

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