Erdogan to Israel, for the Win!

June 5, 2014

From an ugly brawl between the Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen’s movement and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Soma mining disaster, 2014 has not been Turkey’s year. Last weekend marked the dual anniversaries of the Gezi Park protests that took place last year and the Mavi Marmara flotilla raid four years ago; both are powerful reminders of the continuing challenges and extreme polarization in Turkey today. Yet amidst Turkey’s most consequential elections in decades, the longer marathon of Turkish politics is just getting started. Unfortunately, like many other democracies, elections seem to bring out the worst in Turkey.

With recent elections providing a strong domestic mandate for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, any damage done to Turkey’s international reputation may receive little attention from Erdoğan in the short run. However, he should start paying attention. With an economy and foreign policy that relies on critical alliances, Turkey’s future will be written over the course of the next year and the United States should be a friendly co-author.

American foreign policy towards Turkey has become stale and does not reflect the tectonic shifts of the last four years in Turkey and the broader region. If the United States re-engages with Erdoğan and the larger Turkish polity the right way, Erdoğan would have the necessary incentives to take a few steps back from the anti-Western rhetoric he has been leaning on with greater regularity.

Interestingly, as Turkey looks forward to leading the G-20 summit next year and its centennial – now only eight years away – previously taboo areas offer the greatest hope for successful breakthroughs. These include Armenia, Cyprus, the “Eastern” question (read: Kurdish), and – as I wrote prior to the elections – Israel.

It may seem counterintuitive given the ongoing tenor of Turkish politics, which has seen anti-Semitism on full display from discussions about the Soma mine owner’s Jewish son-in-law to unfortunate new insults (that shall not be repeated on WOTR, which is a family site). Through it all, however, Turkey and Israel have maintained important economic and military ties. Government officials point to the 520 years of shared Jewish–Turkish history and the quadrupling of trade, despite the Mavi Marmaraincidents and insults from both sides.

Despite the headlines over the recent Mavi Marmara protests and Turkish court’s arrest orders for the Israeli commanders “responsible” for the incident, Ankara and Jerusalem are tantalizingly close to a comprehensive settlement that would open the door to greater strategic cooperation. Despite internal push back, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has satisfied almost all of Erdoğan’s demands, having already apologized to Erdoğan on Obama’s phone, agreed on compensation for the Mavi Marmara victims’ families, and even offered supplies to Gaza to build a Turkish hospital. This should be welcomed news to both sides, which are facing new regional realities, making cooperation timelier than ever before.

Today, Israel and Turkey are strategically aligned in ways that few would have predicted at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Both states have problems the other side could help with. For instance, as the Syrian civil war drags on and Assad regains the momentum, both Jerusalem and Ankara have a shared interest in a weaker Assad. Additionally, each state could support each other in their shared regional rivalries with Iran and Saudi Arabia, not to mention through greater attention from Washington when they work together regionally.

The rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military and collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has also left Turkey further isolated in the Middle East. Therefore, Israel may hold the key to Turkey’s energy future in the Eastern Mediterranean if it remains less interested in domestic Turkish politics than pragmatic areas of mutual cooperation. Further, with the collapse of the Israeli–Palestinian peace talks and the recent deal that has reunited Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian factions, the possibility of a third intifada is in no one’s long-term interest. Ankara still may be one of the few capitals that can credibly negotiate with a Hamas-incorporated Palestinian unity government.

With the new momentum created by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Cyprus and Secretary of State John Kerry’s continuing focus on the region, Ankara has the chance, albeit limited, to lead constructively in the region if it can work with its most valuable partner. Today that should be Israel, which has a stable government and popular leader. Clearly, this has to be delicately balanced given the conspiratorial nature of Turkish politics and the level to which the AKP and Erdoğan have been vilified in Israel, but the conditions and incentives are there.

Turkey’s first direct presidential election set for the summer, and national parliamentary elections scheduled soon after, cast a long shadow over any potential foreign policy prerogatives. Therefore, depending on who and how the opposition challenges Erdoğan in both of these elections, the fate of any international breakthrough remains on the back burner. However, given that the government is insisting on “business as usual” despite the domestic tension, foreign relations may be the most pragmatic area for quick victories, starting in Jerusalem.


Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and previously served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State.  He is a contributor to War on the Rocks and the views expressed are his own.


Photo credit: Minister-president Rutte (adapted by War on the Rocks)