Dec 31, 2020 - World

Israel to assess Erdoğan's seriousness on normalizing relations

Erdogan holding map of Israel at the UN

Erdoğan holds up a map of Israel during his speech at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2019. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly stated last week that he wants to improve relations with Israel, the Israeli government decided to start a low-profile outreach to Turkey in order to determine whether his intentions are sincere, two Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: Relations between Israel and Turkey, once close allies, started deteriorating in 2008 and have entered a state of ongoing crisis. In 2018, Turkey downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel after unrest surrounding the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Driving the news: Over the last several weeks, Turkey has been sending ambiguous signals to Israel either through the press or through third parties like the president of Azerbaijan, as first reported by Axios.

  • Last Friday, Erdoğan told reporters that Turkey maintains relations with Israel through intelligence channels and stressed: “We have some difficulties with the people at the top."
  • The Turkish president said his country can’t accept Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, but added: “Our heart desires that we can move our relations with them to a better point.”
  • The Israeli government is uncertain how to read the signals coming from Turkey, but foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi decided to hold a meeting on the issue after Erdoğan’s remarks.
  • The meeting, which took place on Wednesday at the foreign ministry, was also attended by senior officials from the prime minister’s office, the ministry of defense and the Mossad.

What’s next: Israeli officials who were briefed on the meeting told me that Ashkenazi said to start sending "quiet feelers" to the Turks via several channels in order to assess how serious Erdoğan really is about improving relations with Israel.

  • The officials said that Israel is not going to put out any formal, public reaction to Erdoğan’s remarks and will try to engage the Turkish government in private.
  • The spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment.

The big picture: Israeli officials think Erdogan’s new tone is directly connected to the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

  • Erdogan is concerned that Biden — who has called the Turkish leader "an autocrat" — will take a hard line on Turkey, and that warming relations with Israel can score points for him with the new U.S. president.
  • Israeli officials say they'll be very cautious, given their suspicions over Erdoğan’s true intentions. In any case, Israel won't harm its relations with Greece and Cyprus in order to mend relations with Turkey.

Flashback: Israeli-Turkish relations have been deteriorating since the 2008 Gaza war. Contacts were frozen almost entirely after the 2010 "Gaza Flotilla incident," in which Israeli commandos attacked activists who were attempting to breach an Israeli blockade to deliver aid to Gaza.

  • Then-President Barack Obama facilitated a trilateral phone call with Netanyahu and Erdoğan in 2013 to try to foster a reconciliation deal.
  • Those talks dragged on until 2016, and the eventual deal unraveled two years later when a new crisis emerged over the Temple Mount.
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