Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a protest rally in Istanbul on May 18, 2018, against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem. (AFP/Ozan Kose)
SETH J. FRANTZMAN, source: jpost.com
A new report that Turkey’s “national intelligence service has been holding secret talks with Israeli officials,” seem to indicate Turkey wants warmer ties with the Jewish State again.
But does it really?
Does Turkey want to work with Hamas and bash Israel or ‘normalize’ relations with the Jewish state?
Turkey’s far-right government has hosted Hamas leaders twice this year – and backed claims that “Jerusalem is ours” and that it will “liberate” al-Aqsa Mosque from Israeli control – but now it wants to use Israel to escape its isolation from Washington.
That appears to be the message that has come out of a new report, stating that Turkey’s “national intelligence service has been holding secret talks with Israeli officials,” according to Al-Monitor.
On the one hand, the same Turkish officials have vowed to work with groups like Hamas and bash Israel at every opportunity, with key figures comparing Israel to the Nazis, and echoing extremist Iranian regime rhetoric about Israel. But the Al-Monitor piece claims that Turkey wants to “normalize” relations with Israel. This is the same Ankara regime that threatened to break off relations with Gulf states over normalizing relations.
Ankara has been isolated from Washington in recent months. While Turkey was able to control the Trump administration’s foreign policy on Syria and in other areas for years through a carefully orchestrated lobby in Washington, it lost influence as it continued to bash Israel, buy Russia’s S-400 air defense system and threaten the US and its allies.
In 2017, during a Turkish presidential visit to Washington, Turkish security attacked peaceful American protesters. Then Ankara held an American pastor hostage. It harassed US soldiers at airports, and imprisoned a US consular worker. Nevertheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoyed a direct line to US President Donald Trump, often berating the US president and ordering him to leave Syria. This led to chaos in Syria and ethnic cleansing between 2018 and 2019.
Ankara’s narrative, often woven in conversations with Trump, was that it could handle Syria and save the US on costs. But the invasion in 2019 where Turkey attacked US partners, and the presence of ISIS officials and al-Qaeda members in Turkish-occupied northern Syria, led the US to wonder if they were getting a bad bargain.
The most pro-Ankara elements in the US State Department, such as Syria and anti-ISIS envoy James Jeffrey, left their position when Trump lost the US election. When Pompeo came to the region in recent months, he avoided Turkey. No more appeasement, no more groveling to Ankara, appeared to be the message.
In the past the US had shared intelligence with Turkey, only to find that Ankara hired Syrian refugees, trained them as religious zealot mercenaries and sent them to hunt down women like Hevrin Khalaf in Syria, an activist who had worked with the US. Christians and Yazidis told US officials they had been ethnically-cleansed by Turkish backed Syrian National Army members. Then Turkey encouraged a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia and threatened Greece, a fellow NATA ally.
TURKEY’S RULING party bet big on a Trump win. They threatened Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi in tweets and messages. But Trump lost and Ankara appears to have lost friends in the White House. It had also bet on using lobbyists to tell American friends that it was “against Iran,” because it knew the Trump administration was tough on the Islamic Republic. To sell Turkey’s support for attacks on the US, Syrian Democratic Force partners and on Armenia, Turkey claimed they were linked to Iran.
But Turkey’s attacks ended up empowering Iran and Russia, and Turkey was buying Russian weapons, contradicting its claims that it opposed Russia. Ankara, Tehran and Moscow signed on to statements saying the US should leave Syria. This was a bridge too far for Washington.
In the past, Turkey has tried to use Israel and the pro-Israel voices in the US to get favors from DC. Every six months it sends out feelers to these groups, talking about “compartmentalizing” the fact that it hosts Hamas and that Hamas members have planned terror attacks from Turkey, by saying that Jerusalem and Ankara could work on other issues together.
When Turkey saw that Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and the UAE were potentially growing closer in March and April, it sent out the feelers to see if it could break up the growing unity between Israel, Egypt and Greece.
With the US, Ankara sells a different pitch. It says that yes, it has acquired Russia’s S-400, but it wants the US to “study” the weapon to pay Turkey not to use it, and has sold US officials on a story that it won’t “turn on” the system. This is like a US ally acquiring Russian warplanes but claiming it won’t fly them.
In mid-November Turkey trotted out the “come study the S-400” story again. This was to lay the groundwork for trying to get a new “in” with the Biden administration. US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson slammed Turkey this week for having the S-400 system. But the US continues to leave open this door of “ok, you can have it, but don’t turn it on.” Turkey has tested it and turned it on to harass Greek jets. Apparently the US policy is just that it not be turned on all the time.
ANKARA APPEARS to feel that after a year of threats against Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France, Armenia, the UAE, Israel and other countries – including using refugees to threaten Greece, sending weapons illegally to Libya and encouraging religious extremism against France – its antics are catching up with it. It has thus turned to Israel again.
How does Turkey use Israel as a tool? It claims that it supports Israel’s efforts against Iran quietly, even though in fact Ankara supported the Iran deal, has hosted members of the IRGC and often sees Iran as a country it can work with. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel after the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem. Ankara tried to rally Palestinians against Israel in the wake of the embassy move.
Now Al-Monitor reports that Turkey wants its ambassador to return. “There is mounting worry in Ankara that the incoming Joe Biden administration will be less indulgent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bellicosity, which has seen Turkey mount three separate incursions against the Syrian Kurds since 2016, send troops and Syrian mercenaries to Libya and Azerbaijan, and lock horns with Greece in Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean waters,” writes Amberin Zaman at Al-Monitor.
It seems now that Ankara believes it could face sanctions from the US over the S-400s and also over “Halkbank’s paramount role in facilitating Iran’s multibillion-dollar illicit oil-for-gold trade,” the report by Zaman says.
So Turkey thinks that being nice to Israel or Jews will now give it a new leaf in the US. This is a model that has been used before. Sometimes it has gone both ways, such as in the old days when Turkey was able to successfully get Jewish groups in the US to lobby against recognition of the Armenian Genocide by claiming that denial of the genocide would bring about closer Israel-Turkey relations. The Anti-Defamation League was infamously marred by controversy in the early 2000s for this approach, changing its stance only in 2016 under new leadership.
Oddly, the denial of the Armenian Genocide didn’t actually bring Israel and Turkey closer; instead, Turkey accused Israel of being like the Nazis. So all the work of denying genocide, got Israel accused of genocide. This time when Turkey wanted to support an attack on Armenians, it wasn’t genocide denial that was pushed in DC but rather a whisper campaign claiming Armenia is allied to Iran, which it is not. Armenians were driven from their homes, and Turkey now wants to be back in favor in Jerusalem – to get back in favor in DC.
IT’S UNCLEAR if Israel will once again go to bat for Turkey, ignoring the support for Hamas, whose terrorism has killed and wounded thousands of Israelis. Israel may find that not so far in the future, once Ankara gets what it wants, it will again focus its sights on Jerusalem.
In the past, Israel and pro-Israel voices in the US who supported Ankara never asked for anything in return. This has always been where things lack clarity with Turkey. While Russia and Iran are greeted with smiles in Ankara and trade booms, weapons flow and Hamas and Islamic Jihad can toast each other in Turkish cafes, Israel is not officially welcome – and never gets anything in return for these various outreach efforts.
In the past Turkey used this to try to sabotage Israel’s relations with Greece, the UAE and other states. It’s unclear if Israel is now prepared to be a tool for Ankara’s far-right government again.
Turkey is also maneuvering to do new outreach to Saudi Arabia and has toned down rhetoric against Greece. Its government knows that – while no human rights groups will do anything about the continued ethnic cleansing and occupation of Afrin – NATO countries such as France and the US are getting tired of weekly crises involving Ankara and the aggression and wars Turkey has embarked upon, destabilizing Syria, Libya, the Caucasus and other states.