Turkey-Israel Tension: What Does President Erdogan Want to Achieve?

Turkey’s relations with Israel are determined, in no small part, by Ankara’s relations with other power blocs, its domestic and broader foreign policy. The roots of Ankara’s May 14th decision to recall its ambassadors to Washington and Tel Aviv shouldn’t therefore solely be sought in US President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem or alternatively the killing of dozens of Palestinian protesters by Israeli Defence Forces at the Gaza border. 

The Turkish government’s response to Israel this time has been muted when compared with previous reactions, such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s clash with former Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos 2009 or over the Israeli raid on a Turkish-led Gaza-bound flotilla, which saw nine Turkish citizens killed. This time, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) reaction’s have been restrained despite fiery rhetoric. AK Party MP's voted down a Parliamentary motion - tabled by opposition parties - seeking to cancel military and political agreements with Israel. 

By leading the anti-Israeli rhetoric, Erdogan wants to provide ammunition for several objectives. First, Ankara seeks to fill the perceived vacuum for the leadership of Sunnis in the Middle East and to strengthen its position as a non-Arab country by scoring points against potential rivals, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are both restrained vis-a-vis Israel. A strong Sunni leadership role is also crucial for President Erdogan’s plans to dominate the Sunni Arab political spectrum in Syria and Iraq, mobilising them against the Kurdish leadership and the Assad government. 

However, President Erdogan’s track record and image as the protector of Sunni Muslim’s internationally is patchy. After supporting the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels against the Assad government for years, Turkey changed its track and facilitated the strategic capture of Aleppo by the regime forces. He also distanced himself last year from the Turkish-led Gaza flotilla campaign. 

Second, while seeking to lead Sunni Arabs, Erdogan has also sought to avoid antagonising Iran and the Shia bloc. But, a bid for Sunni leadership on an anti-Israeli ticket cements Turkey, as the preferable choice to be Iran’s main rival. Yet, Turkish-Iranian cooperation is strategically vital for Ankara against the PKK in the Qandil mountain of Iraqi Kurdistan and to keep broader Kurdish ambitions in check. 

Since Turkey started to follow a more independent foreign policy in the mid-2000s,  the Turkish foreign policy has meandered from being a reluctant regional actor into a multi-directional and non-sectarian policy approach, and later became an Islamist and increasingly sectarian one. Since the rise of the Kurds in Syria and the collapse of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Turkish government’s foreign (and domestic) policy became firmly nationalist. In this equation, Israel’s outlook, which is pro-Iraqi Kurds, and increasingly pro-Kurds more broadly, doesn’t make the country a priority partner for Ankara. 

Third, Erdogan and the AK Party do not symapthise to the US-led anti-Iranian bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel as members in the region. Joining these countries will not only pit Turkey against Iran, but it will also require AKP to take a hostile position against the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as a political movement, is one of AKP’s close political allies. By focusing political attention and public debate in the Arab world on Israel, Ankara could potentially weaken the Saudi Arabia -Egypt bloc and enlist support among Muslim nations for its leadership. Calling an extraordinary summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul on May 19th was a step in that direction. 

Finally, calling for mass rallies against Israel, Erdogan seeks to translate the anti-Israeli sentiment into political points for Turkey;s upcoming Presidential and Parliamentary elections on June 24th. Since anti-Israeli attitudes are not limited to conservative Turks but also widespread among secularists and nationalists, Erdogan can garner further support by leading the rhetoric on the issue. 

Israel has responded to Turkey with similarly fiery rhetoric signalling that the Knesset may recognise the massacres of Armenians under Ottoman Turkey in 1915 as genocide. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also voiced criticism for Turkey’s offensive into the Syrian Kurdish town of Afrin and Ankara’s treatment of the Kurds. This tension works to Netanyahu’s advantage regarding Israeli domestic policies. 

But are further tensions between Turkey and Israel worth risking potentially unclear gains by Turkey? The AKP has for years been taking steps to mitigate the backlash of a tension with Israel. The Turkish government has more than doubled its intelligence capabilities and modernised its defence industry to reduce its dependence on the West as well as Israel. Initially buying the majority of its unarmed UAV drones from Israel, Turkey now has the capabilities to build its armed drones itself. Increasingly confident of its new intelligence capabilities, economic links and influence beyond its borders the Turkish government believes that it has much less need for Israeli support. 

However, the costs for Ankara of hostilities between Israel and Turkey can reverberate beyond the region. Turkey's already stretched relations with the US could further be damaged if pro-Israeli figures in the US establishment become firmly anti-Turkish. Some former Turkish diplomats argue that although the pro-Israeli lobby in the US is no longer a supporter of Turkey, it hasn't yet taken an openly hostile position against Ankara. 

Tension between Israel and Turkey is also not necessarily good news for Palestinians. A Turkish government, which can talk to Israel and yield some influence, would probably benefit Palestinians more than the just a show of public support at rallies inside Turkey. 

A few weeks before pulling its ambassador from the US, Turkey extended diplomatic support for a US, UK and French attack on Syria. These seemingly inconsistent attitude makes sense in the new Turkish foreign policy orientation, which has been put in place since the forced departure of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey's foreign policy is based on exploiting the geopolitical rivalries, not only between Washington and Moscow, but also between Iran and Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and between European countries. Ankara's thinking is that increased tension between Moscow, Tehran and Washington over Syria would propel Turkey into a more important geopolitical position, securing its desire to play a leadership role in the Middle East.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.