Erdogan Is on the Line. Bennett Should Pick Up the Phone

Israel's new government has a chance to fix broken ties, but old understandings and the coalition's inability to deal with the Palestinian issue may cause some headaches

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, on Monday.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, on Monday.Credit: MURAT KULA / Anadolu Agency via
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 40-minute phone call with Isaac Herzog on Monday was more than a routine congratulations to Israel’s new president. Erdogan isn’t into small talk, and when the two men said they discussed improving ties between their countries, Erdogan was referring to concrete steps.

In December 2020, his office leaked that he planned to appoint a new ambassador to Israel. It even said the ambassador would arrive in March 2021. The nominee back then was Ufuk Ulutas, who headed the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research and even studied at the Hebrew University.

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But then the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Turkey that Ulutas was unacceptable to Israel due to his anti-Israel statements in the past. Turkey froze his appointment.

Since Israel held elections in March, Ankara also decided to postpone the new ambassador’s arrival. But now, given what Turkish pundits are calling the “new winds” blowing in bilateral relations, perhaps the new ambassador will finally come.

Since the start of the year, Turkey has also held intensive talks to repair its relationship with Egypt. Ties were severed due to Erdogan’s poisonous criticism of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi after the latter seized power in 2013 and ousted President Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s man, thereby thwarting Turkey’s goal of using Egypt as an economic bridgehead to Africa.

The relationship later reached a dangerous nadir after Turkey recognized Libya’s claim to an exclusive economic zone that effectively separated Egypt’s natural gas fields from Europe.

Turkey has also clashed with Greece, Cyprus and other European countries, leading the European Union to threaten it with sanctions.

In response to all this, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the United Arab Emirates established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which seeks to build a pipeline to bring Israeli and Egyptian gas through Greece to Italy and thence the rest of Europe. Erdogan later tried to persuade Israel to abandon this forum and join Turkey instead, saying, correctly, that transporting gas through Turkey would be cheaper.

On Monday, Erdogan and Herzog said in a joint statement that they discussed cooperation in the fields of energy, tourism and technology. “Energy” means natural gas, the issue that most concerns Erdogan. But he understands that unless he repairs the bilateral relationship, nobody in Israel will listen to him.

Yet even once Erdogan finally appoints an ambassador, he’ll discover that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government remains committed to Israel’s agreements, both official and unofficial, with Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. He’ll also discover that his desire to become a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t on Israel’s agenda, largely because the new government views diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians as “politically unfeasible,” to quote Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

But Bennett’s government cannot ignore the opportunity to improve relations with Ankara. Turkey is a regional power with important centers of influence in Iraq, Qatar, Libya and central Asia, and despite its good relations with Iran, it isn’t an Iranian satellite. If there’s good chemistry between Erdogan and Herzog, the government should make use of it until formal ambassadorial relations resume.

Judging by their initial forays into foreign policy, Bennett and Lapid aren’t interested in merely maintaining existing regional ties, but also in repairing the damage done by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was evident in Bennett’s meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, his decision to sell Jordan an extra 50 million cubic meters of water, a recent improvement in the two countries’ military ties, and Lapid’s unusual meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

All this lays the groundwork for a new atmosphere, based partly on regional recognition of the fact that this government will have better ties with the Biden administration than its predecessor did, though the relationship hasn’t yet been put to any real test. Two hours after Bennett was sworn in, U.S. President Joe Biden called to congratulate him. In contrast, after his own inauguration, Biden kept Netanyahu waiting for a month before finally picking up the phone.

Granted, this was just a symbolic gesture, and the two leaders will yet have explosive clashes. But it shows that Biden plans to give the new Israeli government a line of credit that is unaffected by his dismal relationship with Netanyahu.

This line of credit comes with conditions. One of the most important is protecting human rights, especially in the territories. Israel got a searing reminder of this when it demolished the house of Muntasir Shalabi, the Palestinian-American terrorist who killed Yehuda Guetta in the West Bank in May.

“The home of an entire family shouldn’t be demolished for the action of one individual,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in an unusual statement. “There is a critical need to lower the temperature in the West Bank.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other U.S. officials have raised these concerns with senior Israeli officials, Price added, and will continue to do so as long as Israel’s policy of razing terrorists’ homes continues.

Both sides know the home demolitions will continue. But for now, Bennett seems to have gotten rid of the artillery Netanyahu and his associates fired every time Washington criticized Israel’s behavior.

Because this government was established based on a shared understanding that certain issues – first and foremost negotiations with the Palestinians – won’t be on its agenda, Washington and Jerusalem will for now be spared some of the tensions that led to the rift between Netanyahu and Biden. That’s an important achievement for the new government, and it might also benefit Israel’s relationships with other countries in the region.