As 2015 came to a close, the only good news, potentially, to come out of the Middle East was that Turkey and Israel were trying to re-establish full diplomatic relations.
It’ll be interesting to see if Turkey’s self-interest will prevail over President Recep Erdogan’s habitual hostility to the Jewish state.
Relations had deteriorated since 2002, when then-Turkish prime minister Erdogan and his Islamist-oriented AK Party rose to power. With his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan was not only hostile to Israel, he was anti-Semitic. Relations spiralled into total crisis in 2010, when Israeli commandos, acting in self-defence, killed nine Turks aboard the Mavi Mamara, the lead ship of the Turkish flotilla trying to breach Israel’s legal naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In 2013, in an effort to break the impasse in Turkish-Israeli relations, U.S. President Barak Obama prevailed upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize for “any error that may have led to the loss of life.” Contrary to Obama’s expectations but consistent with his (Obama’s) misreading of the region, Erdogan, intransigent as ever, refused to reciprocate Netanyahu’s magnanimous gesture (magnanimous since Israel felt it had nothing to apologize for).
In the meantime, Turkey was becoming more isolated in the Middle East. Turkey had alienated Egypt after preaching to it and other Arab countries about being a role model for democratic reform. Ankara did so while imprisoning scores of journalists and generally clamping down on free speech. Erdogan expressed open hostility to former friend and major trading partner Syrian President Bashar Assad after Assad attacked his own people and caused a Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey.
In mid-December, as Erdogan threatened to “annihilate” Kurdish militants, many based in northern Iraq, the Arab League condemned a Turkish troop deployment in Iraq as an “assault” on the country’s sovereignty.
Then came what was perhaps the most serious diplomatic setback for Turkey – Erdogan’s decision to shoot down a Russian bomber that had made a 17-second incursion into Turkish airspace. One bully, Erdogan, had taken on another, even greater bully, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had just a short while earlier moved major Russian military assets into Syria in order to prop up his brutal ally Assad and secure Russia’s naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus.
While acting short of military retaliation against Turkey, a furious Putin imposed sanctions against his former friend. Turkey currently gets over half its gas from Russia and has substantial trade agreements with Moscow.
But now Turkey is looking to Israel, which is developing massive gas fields off its Mediterranean coast, as a possible supplier – and partial replacement for Russia – once pipelines are built into Turkey.
This is the sort of practical, mutually beneficial economic deal that would help shore up ties between Israel and Turkey. Nonetheless, Russia, which has good relations with the Jewish state, but which badly needs all the revenues it can generate from its gas and oil sales, would almost certainly not be pleased by Israel’s incursion into its markets.
As this column is being written in late December, there are reports that Erdogan, characteristically, is throwing other obstacles at Israel, insisting that Israel end its blockade of Gaza before relations can move ahead. While this has long been one of Erdogan’s demands, there were indications that Turkey, a NATO member, would end its overt support of Hamas, foremost its being home to a faction of Hamas’ “military wing” led by Saleh al-Aruri that, among other things, is trying to establish terror cells in the West Bank.
Yet, in another act of defiance against Israel, Erdogan just recently feted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Turkey.
It’s sheer hypocrisy for Erdogan to support a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction while he ruthlessly attacks Turkey’s own Kurds (200,000 of whom have been displaced in the last few months in the south-eastern part of the country), and who are demanding nothing other than autonomy.