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Will AKP's loss benefit Israel?

Many in Israel reveled over the AKP's loss in the parliamentarian elections, but their defeat might actually harm the normalization process between the two countries.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a graduation ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, June 11, 2015. President Erdogan on Thursday urged the country's political parties to work quickly to form a new government, saying egos should be left aside and that history would judge anyone who left Turkey in limbo. In his first public appearance since Sunday's parliamentary election, Erdogan said no political development should be allowed to threaten Turkey's gains. He said he would do his part in finding a

The only public response heard in Israel to the results of the Turkish elections came from the mouth of former President Shimon Peres at the Herzliya Conference. On June 8, a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party suffered a defeat at the ballot box, Peres said, “I am happy about what happened in Turkey — Erdogan wanted to turn Turkey into Iran, and there is no room for two Irans in the Middle East. The results of the Turkish elections show a positive trend for Israel and the Middle East.”

Peres has a very old account to settle with the Turkish leader, ever since Erdogan sparred with him at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. That was the incident that heralded the beginning of the crisis in the relations between the two states, which reached its height in the Marmara flotilla raid a year later in May 2010. In the violent confrontation that erupted on the flotilla that was on its way to violate the blockade on the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers killed 10 Turkish citizens.

The anti-Israeli rage that characterized all election campaigns conducted by Erdogan subsequent to the flotilla confrontation was practically absent in the recent campaign. In this election, the president’s party lost the absolute majority of the vote that it had enjoyed in the Ankara parliament since 2002. However, during the last days of the campaign, Erdogan did make one flagrant anti-Semitic comment: Since The New York Times had adopted a critical stance against him, the Turkish president accused the Jews of funding the newspaper, and concluded his words with cackling laughter.

Erdogan does not hide his longing for a return to the Ottoman Empire legacy. In a statement made a few weeks before The New York Times incident, Erdogan expressed his sorrow that Turkey lost its foothold in Jerusalem when the British routed the Ottomans in World War I. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s follower and right-hand man, hurried to declare at an election rally that Jerusalem does not belong to Israel at all, but to Islam.

In previous Turkish election campaigns, Israel had become accustomed to serve as the eternal butt of Erdogan’s verbal attacks, whether he was prime minister or president; the verbal abuse rose to the level of verbal violence. For example, in the Turkish presidential campaign, which coincided with the war in Gaza last summer, Erdogan stated that Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, who now is Israel's justice minister, "has the same mindset as Hitler."

The isolated anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic statements that were uttered in the recent Turkish elections were almost not covered by the Israeli media. Israeli keynoters and policy-setters chose not to emphasize or ascribe importance to these statements, but instead relegate them to the context of the Turkish dream held by Erdogan and Davutoglu of reconstructing the greatness of the Ottoman Empire. The statement against The New York Times was also ignored.

I have noted here in recent months that Erdogan aspires to normalize diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel for geopolitical and economic reasons. This change in direction is mainly geared to allow business actors close to the president to advance the construction of an underwater pipeline, together with Israeli partners. The pipeline will transport natural gas from the fields that Israel discovered in the Mediterranean Sea, to Turkey and from Turkey to Europe. Meanwhile, the final condition stipulated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before continuing the reconciliation process and compensation for the Marmara victims was a commitment by Erdogan to stop his verbal attacks against Netanyahu personally, and against the State of Israel. This, apparently, is the reason that anti-Israeli rhetoric was avoided in the recent electoral campaign.

It is too early to predict what route Turkey will take after this election campaign. It is even more premature to gauge how Erdogan’s electoral loss will affect Turkish-Israeli relations. The election did not revolve around Turkey’s foreign relations; it also did not revolve around the economy, nor around a series of additional issues. Instead, the focus of the election was on the unlimited power that Erdogan aspired for. The words uttered aloud by Peres immediately after the election results were publicized and are being repeated on Israel’s streets and in its meeting rooms. However, Erdogan was not ousted and he’s not going anywhere. He lost a lot of his political strength and has been forced to delay his plans to change the constitution, at least for now. Erdogan now possesses much less authority and power than he would have liked, but he is still the president of Turkey.

The perception that prevails here in Israel among the public and the decision-makers is that a weak Erdogan is good for Israel. However, this may not be necessarily true. Erdogan’s decision to rehabilitate relations with Israel, at the appropriate time, was made at the peak of his power. This is not a willing return to the days of strategic cooperation, as it is clear that all those bridges have long since been burned. Instead, it is mainly because Erdogan feels that he and his associates could benefit from the gas-pipeline deal.

Erdogan also took into account Israeli sensitivity to the assistance that Turkey gives Hamas, and the warm hospitality it offers to the organization’s senior official, Saleh al-Arouri. This week, Israeli journalist Amos Harel reported in Haaretz that Turkey asked Hamas to scale back terror activities from its territory. The Turkish president acted this way when he was convinced of his unlimited power, when it seemed to him that he could do anything in Turkey he wanted. A weak Erdogan may reconsider his options. After the blow he received in the last elections, he may come to the conclusion that his anti-Israeli line will help him in the future to repeat his successes.

True, all the party heads in the Turkish parliament have called, in the past, for a speedy renewal of the country’s foreign relations. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that normalization with Israel would head the priority list of any coalition that would emerge. The alternate scenario is that a minority government will be formed for a short time, and afterward new, early elections will be held. The latter scenario is far more worrisome to those officials specialized in the bilateral relations with whom Al-Monitor spoke on condition of anonymity. According to such a scenario, Erdogan may connect the dots between the absence of anti-Israel rhetoric to his party's failure at the polls. Then he could re-mobilize the verbal-attacks weaponry and destroy the small-scale fragile trust that was produced in the last few months, between Jerusalem and Ankara.

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