It should be made clear to Israel’s partners in the eastern Mediterranean that any (unlikely) improvement in Israel’s relations with Turkey will not come at their expense. Despite some recent positive signals, Erdogan’s basic orientation as an Islamist is bound to remain hostile.
Within the last few weeks, there have been several signs that the Turkish government is seeking a “reset” with Israel. The most notable was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conversation (July 12) with the President of Israel, Yitzhak Herzog, after the latter took office. This effort comes against the background of US-Turkish tensions, and EU sanction threats over aspects of Turkish policy, but also of an aggressive stance by Erdogan and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the future of the island.
As the visits of the Greek and Cypriot foreign ministers indicate (July 21 and 26 respectively), Israel’s partners in the eastern Mediterranean feel the need for reassurance against an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between Israel and its Mediterranean partners. In line with the positions taken during their meetings, it should indeed be made clear to all – including Egypt – that any (unlikely) improvement in relations with Turkey will not come at their expense. Despite the signals, Erdogan’s basic orientation as an Islamist is bound to remain hostile.
Why Does Turkey Profess to be Interested in Rapprochement with Israel?
Erdogan’s relatively long telephone conversation with Israel’s new president, Yitzhak (“Bougie”) Herzog, came within five days after the latter took office. The official readout mentioned the “potential for cooperation between the countries in many fields, in particular the areas of energy, tourism and technology,” as well as the need to maintain a dialogue “despite the differences of opinion.” (Erdogan’s version, as might have been expected, gave due place to the need for “a two-state lasting and comprehensible solution within the framework of UN resolutions.”) This was read in Israel and beyond as a bid to shed off the bitter tensions of the last decade and open a channel of communication.
Indeed, this was not the only gesture of its kind by Turkey aimed at countries in the region with which Ankara almost came to blows in recent years. Senior envoys have gone to Egypt now that the situation in Libya has been stabilized to some degree. Both Ankara and Cairo know that they cannot get all they want. Turkey’s allies in Tripoli cannot get rid of Khalifa Haftar and the LNA; and in turn, even with Egypt’s support, the latter cannot conquer the country’s eastern half. A political process, fragile and complicated, is underway, and Turkey is obliged to seek some understandings with Sisi.
Turkey has also reached out to Saudi Arabia, after a long period of tension over the siege of Qatar and other points of contention. The signaling to Israel is thus part of a broader pattern. At its root lies a growing sense of diplomatic isolation and vulnerability, given Turkey’s reduced standing in Washington (as demonstrated by Biden’s action on the Armenian genocide); and on the other hand, the hope to drive a wedge between the members of the EMGF alignment. Moreover, this coincides, with the decision to escalate pressure on the Cypriots to accept facts on the ground in the TRNC controlled areas, and specifically, the reopening of the ghost city of Varosha, near Famagusta, to habitation by Cypriot (or Anatolian) Turks.
In this light, the courtship of Israel needs to be seen as a bid to sow dissent among key members of the strategic alignment embodied in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). Ankara looks upon this regional organization, and the underlying logic of strategic cooperation on a broad range of issues, as a deliberate effort to contain the Turkish aspirations for hegemony in the region. Distancing Israel, as well as Egypt (and Egypt’s Arab backers) from Greece and Cyprus could make it easier for Erdogan to pursue his neo-Ottoman ambitions, re-write the rules in Cyprus, and down the road (even if tensions in the Aegean have abated somewhat) implement the concept of the “blue homeland” (mavi vatan).
The latter assumes an extended realm of maritime control which ignores the EEZ rights of Greece. Turkey’s map negates the EEZ delineation generated by the existence of Rhodes, Karpathos, and Crete. Clearly, one of the drivers of Erdogan’s move in Cyprus is the incessant need for action which stems from the growing discontent and signs of domestic weakness of his ruling party, AKP (and the reliance on the ultra-nationalist MHP).
Signs of Worry in Athens and Nicosia?
Not surprisingly, a note of alarm came to be felt in the Greek and Cypriot discourse with Israel. Both countries understand that the “alignment” is not (yet?) an alliance, and Israel is not and will not be committed to join a military confrontation with Turkey if one erupts. Still, the reality and the perception of close coordination with Israel on a range of issues does contribute to the resilience of both Greece and Cyprus in the face of an aggressive challenge. Hence the concern about a possible change of Israeli attitudes towards Turkey.
With notable alacrity, both Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias (July 21) and his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides (July 26) visited Israel within a fortnight of Erdogan’s call. While there is a wide range of issues on the bilateral as well as the trilateral agenda, it was manifest that the recent aggressive stance taken by Turkey in Cyprus was at the forefront of their concerns. They came to be reassured about Israel’s stance. Significantly, President Herzog also called his Greek counterpart, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, to inform her of the content of his conversation with Erdogan; and met with Christodoulides during his visit, apparently with the same purpose in mind.
Israel’s Priority: Shoring up the Mediterranean Alignment
During both visits, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid went out of his way to show fraternity and warmth (also seeking, more broadly, to repair Israel’s relations with Europe). During his meeting with Christodoulides, he publicly criticized Turkish actions in Varosha and expressed Israeli solidarity with Cyprus. These sentiments, as already indicated, need not be interpreted as a strategic commitment. The ability of Cyprus to counter these actions, beyond bringing the matter to the attention of the international community, is quite limited to begin with. Israel’s stance does, however, send a clear signal that needs to be sustained. The alignment, as developed in recent years, is important to Israel in many respects (including some which pertain to our national security in future emergencies, and to Israel’s diplomatic standing in Europe). It will not be traded away for a short-lived rapprochement with a leader in Turkey whose Islamist orientation remains fundamentally hostile.
This is also a significant aspect of Israel’s improving relationship with France. (That relationship has been shaken, but not undermined, by the “Pegasus”/NSO scandal, which was the immediate reason for the urgent visit of Defense Minister Gantz to Paris). Now a member of the EMGF, France shares with Israel a perspective on Turkish ambitions, and like Israel and Egypt does not grieve over the removal of elements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Tunisia.
Even more important are the relationships with Jordan (a member of good standing of the EMGF, although it has no Mediterranean shore of its own) and with Egypt. Stabilizing Jordan is need vital to peace and stability for the eastern Mediterranean as a whole, The King of Jordan’s trilateral summit in Athens with the leaders of Greece and Cyprus (July 28) was an important step towards the consolidation of the alignment.
As for Sisi, who at present also plays a key role in seeking to calm down the tensions with Hamas in Gaza, the importance of his role can hardly be overstated. While he may be willing to engage with Erdogan over practical matters, such as the Libyan situation, the basic ideological chasm between his regime and the Islamist orientation of the AKP is not likely to be bridged.
For Israel, the obvious message to send is that with very few exceptions – and Erdogan’s Turkey is not one of them – the strategic commonality with Egypt is at the very top of our long-term interests and must remain so. Alongside Israel’s partners in the UAE, and through the utilization of the growing cooperation between Greek and Jewish diasporic organizations in the US (and elsewhere), active efforts should be made to uphold the international legitimacy of the Greek-Egyptian EEZ map, and to ensure that US policy on Libya will push back against Turkey’s bid for hegemony.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.