by Giorgio Cafiero
U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has unleashed widespread rage across the Muslim world. One of the numerous consequences has been heightened tension in Turkish-Israeli relations, historically a pro-Western alliance that Washington has been heavily vested in strengthening over the years.
On December 13, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as one of the leaders most vocally opposed to Trump’s Jerusalem move, hosted the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s summit in Istanbul. The summit sought to establish a “new alliance” of Muslim countries in protection of Jerusalem. Erdogan spoke harshly against Washington and Tel Aviv, labeling Israel a “terrorist state.” He announced plans to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem, which Erdogan has called on Muslim leaders to recognize as the Palestinian capital.
The question is, will Turkey go one step further and sever Ankara’s diplomatic and economic relations with Israel? Earlier this month, Erdogan vowed to do so in response to Washington’s recognition of the holy city as Israel’s capital. However, Turkey has yet to make this move, and there are questions as to its likelihood. There are also questions surrounding Erdogan’s plan to place a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem, given that Israeli forces have maintained de facto control of the entire city since 1967.
Turkish-Israeli relations reached a low point in May 2010 due to the deadly Gaza flotilla raid, resulting in six years of stagnant relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv. During the rift, the Turkish government withdrew its ambassador from Israel and later expelled Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, and joint military drills were cancelled. In March 2013, then-Prime Minister Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, held a conciliatory phone call that improved bilateral relations and led to the signing of a reconciliation agreement last year.
Yet in September, amid the lead up to the Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq—in which Israel was the only government in the world to endorse Kurdish independence—Ankara-Tel Aviv relations once more grew strained. Turkish leaders responded to Israel’s position cautiously, without reversing the reconciliation. But now the Jerusalem crisis could become the straw that breaks the camel’s back and brings about the end of Tel Aviv’s relationship with the first Muslim country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
Unquestionably, Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric with respect to Trump and the Israeli occupation serves the Turkish president’s domestic and regional political interests.
At home, opposition to Erdogan has grown in Turkey’s urban areas following the April 2017 referendum that amended the constitution to enhance the powers of the Turkish presidency. Erdogan is now looking ahead to a general election in 2019, in which he will most likely be standing for reelection while his Justice and Development Party (AKP) seeks to defend its parliamentary majority. Therefore, the domestic dimensions of Erdogan’s response to the Jerusalem crisis are clear. The issue of Jerusalem’s status—which is sensitive in Turkey given historical Ottoman legacies and the fact that the vast majority of Turkish citizens practice Islam—is one where Turkish voters across the political spectrum are largely in consensus. In contrast to Ankara’s response to the Qatar crisis, which created a degree of controversy and criticism from Turkey’s main opposition party, the AKP leadership’s reaction to Trump’s Jerusalem move has been popular domestically.
Regionally, Erdogan is attempting to establish himself as a leader of the Muslim world. One way he can expand his regional influence is by bringing more Arab countries into alignment with Turkey against Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Yet segments of many Arab countries, which have been unsettled by the AKP’s alleged “neo-Ottoman” ambitions in the Middle East, see Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric as opportunistic and disingenuous.
A common criticism of Turkey is that Ankara cannot be truly committed to confronting Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and violations of Palestinian rights, as Turkey and Israel maintain a flourishing economic relationship—Israel is one of Turkey’s top ten export destinations. Indeed, despite the rhetoric, Turkish exports to Israel have increased over the past several years, reaching $2.5 billion last year and rising an additional 14 percent since January.
For Ankara to sever relations with the Jewish state would come at a significant cost, at a time when Turkey’s economy is grappling with inflation, unemployment, and a growing deficit. Yet terminating Turkey’s ties with Israel would add momentum to Erdogan’s quest to position himself as a pan-Islamic leader. Protests by Palestinians and others in the Arab world against Saudi Arabia’s alleged unofficial support for Trump’s Jerusalem move have created a vacuum that Erdogan could move to exploit with a dramatic diplomatic gesture.
If Ankara severs relations with Tel Aviv, Turkey would move even further away from the United States. That movement has already begun, as a result of Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurds and America’s role (as alleged by AKP officials) in last year’s failed coup plot in Turkey. Further strain in US-Turkey relations, which have reached rock bottom this year, would naturally enhance Moscow’s—and, to a lesser extent, Beijing’s—opportunities to capitalize on tension between Washington and Ankara.
Additionally, in cutting ties with Israel, Turkey would be relinquishing any hopes of playing a role in the stalled (and truthfully non-existent) “peace process.” Furthermore, Israel has a ‘Kurdish card’ to play and could potentially make good on past threats to arm the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey as its insurgency continues against the Turkish military.
Erdogan, for all his rhetoric, is a highly realistic statesman. Turkey’s relationship with Russia in recent years has been a case in point. As much as Ankara and Moscow’s interests have clashed in Syria, and for as much as Turkish-Russian tensions heightened after the Turkish military downed a Russian fighter that briefly entered Turkish airspace in November 2015, Erdogan always kept Turkey’s energy interests—it relies on Russia for 60 percent of its gas supply—in mind. Thus, Ankara and Moscow reconciled their differences through a rapprochement last year. Along those same lines, the potential for future exploitation of offshore Mediterranean gas fields is a long-term interest that may sway Erdogan against severing relations with the Jewish state.
Turkey’s president is keen to take advantage of an opportunity to shore up his popularity domestically and regionally with strong words in defense of the Muslim world’s third holiest site and of Palestinian rights. Nonetheless, Erdogan will also weigh the pros and cons of terminating Turkey’s relations with Israel. It remains to be seen whether Turkish leaders will determine that the benefits of severing ties with the Jewish state would outweigh the costs and risks.