Turkey’s recent flurry of overtures to Israel has been ill-conceived, ill-communicated and ill-received by the Jewish State. Be it the now-scotched nomination of an overtly anti-Israeli pundit with close ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party as ambassador to Tel Aviv or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's pronouncements that he would like to improve relations but that Israel was “merciless” toward the Palestinians, Ankara’s messaging has been greeted with a mix of bemusement, yawns and contempt.
Israel’s position is crystal clear. As a steady trickle of Gulf and other Muslim states ditch decades of hostility to make peace, Turkey’s name is slipping on Israel’s dance card. Thus, if Turkey is sincere about restoring ties to the ambassadorial level after unceremoniously booting out last Israeli envoy Eitan Na’eh — he’ll be Jerusalem’s first ever man in Abu Dhabi — in May 2018, it now needs to kick out the hundreds of Hamas operatives Israel claims are plotting terror attacks from Istanbul.
But will it? The question resurfaced when pro-government Milli Gazete published a letter dated Dec. 21 from Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh that was sent to multiple heads of Islamic states, including Erdogan warning against friendship with Israel, on the same day it appeared in the Palestinian media. Had Ankara leaked the letter in a further clumsy signal to Israel that it might consider ignoring Haniyeh’s request?
Ankara has expelled Hamas operatives in the past under Western pressure. They include Saleh al-Arouri, who led the movement from Turkey until he was shown the door in 2014.
“If Turkey is serious, the ideas will come through serious channels with some sort of a timetable for issues to be discussed, and maybe they do, but I doubt it when I see what’s appearing in the press,” said a well-placed diplomatic source. “It's nuts, with people [on the Turkish side] saying Israel should make the first step. Is their idea about Israel that it’s stupid?” the source asked.
Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, shares much of the skepticism aired by the steady drip of anonymous Israeli officials in the media.
“Nobody’s going to believe Erdogan’s feigned ‘new leaf,’ especially when Turkey’s economy and Erdogan’s domestic political standing are in free fall,” he contended.
Makovsky continued in emailed comments to Al-Monitor, “Sincere, durably better relations with Israel? Sure, it’s a good thing and can be demonstrated over time. But [Erdogan] shouldn’t expect any immediate or big reward for it. That ship sailed a while ago, and it went to Athens and Nicosia.” Makovsky was referring to the series of economic and defense pacts signed between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, who with Egypt have banded together against Turkey’s claims to natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, agrees that Turkey’s stabs at wooing back Israel “are seen more as an attempt to drive a wedge between Israel, Greece and Cyprus.” She told Al-Monitor Turkey’s recent overtures to Egypt are interpreted by Cairo much in the same light: opportunistic and insincere.
“If [Erdogan] wants to show that this time it’s different, let him do something meaningful, like renounce all ties with Hamas and denounce Hamas for its commitment to violence and non-recognition of Israel,” said Makovsky.
Basem Naim, a member of Hamas' international relations bureau, rejects Israel’s claims that Hamas operatives in Turkey are planning terrorist attacks against it.
“We have the right to oppose the unlawful occupation of Palestine and to resist it through all available means including through armed resistance. However, we are not planning any armed attacks from Turkey. We are operating within the limits set by Turkish laws. We have no blank check,” Naim told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview from Gaza.
Israel insists, however, that Turkey is providing sanctuary for State Department-designated Hamas terror plotters who conduct counterintelligence and cyber attacks from a secret center in Istanbul and has granted Turkish citizenship to some of them. Turkey denies the charge.
The matter is bound to have come up in recent meetings between Turkey’s spy chief Hakan Fidan and his Mossad counterpart Yossi Cohen.
Turkey has not expelled any Hamas figures in recent years, Israeli officials say. Naim says that it’s no secret that members of his group reside in Turkey. Some are prisoners freed by Israel in 2011 exchange for Israel's Gilad Shalit.
Others fled conflicts in Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, “There are thousands of Palestinians, students and others in Turkey who sympathize with the Hamas ideology but that doesn’t make them members of the [Izz ad-Din] Al Qassam brigades.” Naim was referring to Hamas' military wing, which routinely targets Israeli settlers with its arsenal of rockets.
Naim concedes, however, that Erdogan does appear to be sending out feelers to Israel.
“I think there’s more than one reason for this initiative,” he said, listing many of the explanations offered by Israel as well.
One is the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden, “which is not so in love with Turkey or President Erdogan” and is therefore likely to take a harsher stand than President Donald Trump over Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles designed to shoot down NATO aircraft. “Many here in the region say that the regional gate for the heart of Washington is Tel Aviv. If you want to reach decision-makers in DC, you pass through Tel Aviv,” Naim said echoing the increasingly dated logic that making nice with Israel wins favor in the United States.
Another reason for Turkey’s revived interest in Israel “is to weaken and fragment the alliance between Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and the UAE versus Turkey and [the Government of National Accord] in Libya” in the Eastern Mediterranean.
But while Turkey wants to “upgrade relations with Israel,” he said, it won’t do so “at any cost.” This is because Palestine is a "red line” for “a vast majority of Turks” spanning the ideological and ethnic spectrum who believe in a two-state solution, Naim observed.
Championing the Palestinian cause certainly plays well to Erdogan’s Islamist base, which views the group as fellow underdogs scorned and marginalized by the West,
“Turkey sees Hamas as a legitimate political actor and that no settlement can be reached with the Palestinians without talking to Hamas,” Lindenstrauss said. The idea mirrors Turkey’s broader embrace of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired opposition movements throughout the Middle East.
And for all its tough talk, “Israel has not vetoed Turkey's political links with Hamas but rather the fact that Ankara is turning a blind eye to terrorist activity directed at Israel and the West Bank that is orchestrated on its soil,” she added.
Naim believes that Israel’s rebuttals are no more sincere than Turkey’s advances. “Israel may be the most pragmatic player in the whole world. When it says ‘no’ it’s not a principled ‘no,’" he said. “It’s only to raise the price because they know Turkey is in need of relations at this time.” All indications are, however, that buoyed by the Abraham Accords and its new Hellenic partners, Israel no longer shares that need.