Opinion

On Israel, Erdogan’s All Loud Bark, No Bites

Even as the Turkish leader engaged in heated rhetoric about Gaza, he has avoided taking even a symbolic step against trade ties

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second left, his wife Emine Erdogan, left, member of Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite presidency Bakir Izetbegovic, second right, and his wife Sebija Izetbegovic salute to the crowd during a rally in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sunday, May 20, 2018.
/AP

It’s easy for Israelis to dismiss Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a deranged anti-Semite.

Erdogan's latest of explosion of invective against Israel, calling it a “terror state” engaged in “genocide” in Gaza, among other things, is the kind of rhetoric you expect out of Iran, not from a NATO member with pretensions of becoming a global power.

But no one should underestimate Erdogan’s sanity. If he hasn’t turned Turkey into an Islamic state, the fact is, he is a good Muslim. Part of being a believer is to resent any assault on the dignity and lives of fellow Muslims. The thought of his Palestinian co-religionists being cut down by a Jewish Israeli army that Turkey, much less the Muslim world, can’t stop, is bound to arouse the president’s deepest emotions.

It’s also election time in Turkey, and no one in Israel should underestimate the extent to which Erdogan’s sentiments are shared by ordinary Turks. Sending Israel’s ambassador in Ankara packing with a humiliating public frisking at the airport no doubt brought smiles to a good portion of the Turkish electorate, just as Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s seating the Turkish ambassador in a lower chair in a meeting eight years ago did the same for a certain element of Israeli voters.

The June 24 election is crucial for Erdogan because victory ensures the transformation of Turkey from a parliamentary model into an executive presidency, which will place enormous and unprecedented powers in his hands. Anti-Israel rhetoric is a useful way of distracting voters anxious about the Turkish currency being in a free fall, and unemployment and inflation running in the double digits.

The funny thing is that Erdogan’s frown turns to a smile when there is business to be done.

Even in the darkest days of bilateral relations – those six years after the Mavi Marmora raid – trade between the two countries actually grew.

One reason for that is that the Syrian civil war made it impossible for Turkish exporters to deliver goods by truck to markets in Jordan. So they came to rely on Israel. Turkish ships deliver containers full of goods to Haifa, which are then delivered by truck driven by Turkish drivers over the Sheikh Hussein Bridge. Another is that Turkey reportedly serves as a transit point for Central Asia oil exports to Israel.

For Turkey, Israel isn’t a major export market (accounting for just over 2 percent of total Turkish exports), but it is an important one, and one where Turkey – which is running a massive overall trade deficit – enjoys a sizable trade surplus.

Lip service to boycott

Last week Erdogan hosted an “extraordinary” summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which among other things called for a boycott of products from settlements in the West Bank. On Tuesday, Erdogan said Turkey would abide by the resolution.

But none of it means anything. Given the paucity of exports from the settlements, Erdogan's vow amounts to empty posturing.

Moreover, Erdogan made clear he was in no rush to act even on that symbolic gesture. “Of course, we will assess the situation as well," he said, according to a report in the Turkish daily Hurriyet on Tuesday. "As Turkey, we will evaluate our ties, particularly economic and trade, with them [Israel]. We have an upcoming election. We will take steps in this direction after the elections.”

When the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party suggested suspending economic ties with Israel, a few weeks ago, Erdogan’s allies in parliament made sure to defeat it.

Apparently Turkish voters want their leader to lambast Israel, but they are less sure they want it to cost them anything. Perhaps even more importantly, Turkish businesses don’t want to upset a perfectly good trade relationship.

However, a big question is whether Erdogan can be counted on as a reliable partner for any future gas agreement to export Israeli gas via pipeline to Turkey.

Win-win, in theory

On the face of it, a Turkish-Israeli deal should be a win-win for everyone – Israel gets a big export market for its energy that it now lacks and Turkey can wean itself, to a degree, off Russian gas and realize its dream of becoming an international energy hub.

Unfortunately, any international gas pipeline project involves enormous risk. Unlike oil, which you can put on a tanker and ship wherever you want, gas is an expensive and long-term commitment for the buyer and seller, who have to spend billions on building the pipeline infrastructure, a project that takes years in and of itself. Then they have to maintain working relations for at least 20 years.

Also, a gas deal would have to involve not just Israel, but Cyprus and maybe Egypt – two other countries with gas resources that logically should be part of any arrangement, but with whom Erdogan is at verbal war. Negotiations for a deal would get entangled in issues like Cypriot unity that exercise the Turkish leader almost as much as the Palestinians.

Moreover, Erdogan’s management of the economy is too erratic for Israel to be confident that the Turkish economy is a steady and reliable market.

Erdogan is too mercurial a leader to risk the major money and commitment of a gas deal, but there’s no reason to allow ordinary trade and business to continue and even grow. Regarding the gas, Israel can pursue other options for exporting it. In the meantime, Israel should take Erdogan’s nasty rhetoric in proportion.

Alas, that is going to be difficult, because Israel’s government is populated by nationalists of the Erdogan stripe, who revel in trading insults and engaging in symbolic acts of vengeance. Israel’s right-wing Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel couldn’t resist last week calling for a freeze on Turkish agricultural imports to Israel, prompting disparaging remarks by his Turkish counterpart.

Ariel’s move was a sideshow whose coverage was pretty much limited to Israel right-wing media. Let’s hope the rest of Israel does a better job of keeping its cool.