Former Turkish Ambassador: Erdogan Does Want Normalization With Israel

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara. (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters)

After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that he would like to bring ties with Israel “to a better point,” former ambassador to Turkey Pini Avivi told Yisrael Hayom that if Erdogan speaks, he means what he’s saying.

As known, Turkey and Israel, who were once allies, have had a bitter falling out in recent years. Ankara has repeatedly condemned Israel’s policies in Yehudah and Shomron and its treatment of the Palestinians. It has also criticized recent U.S.-brokered rapprochements between Israel and four Muslim countries.

Speaking to reporters Friday in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey had issues with “people at the top level” in Israel and that ties could have been “very different” if it were not for those issues.

“The Palestine policy is our red line. It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable,” Erdogan said.

“If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different,” he added. “We would like to bring our ties to a better point.”

Despite Erdogan’s stated stance on the Palestinians issue, however, Ankara recently appointed a new ambassador to Israel after a two-year absence, and was also looking to forge a maritime border pact with Israel in the Mediterranean Sea.

Earlier this month, a move to appoint Ufuk Ulutas, 40, as the new Turkish ambassador to Israel was viewed as part of Ankara’s attempt to improve ties with President-elect Joe Biden’s administration in the U.S.

Officially, Israel hasn’t responded publicly to Erdogan’s rapprochement efforts.

With that, a senior Israeli minister familiar with the details of the diplomatic developments told Yisrael Hayom that the situation with Turkey was completely unlike the four Arab countries that recently signed peace agreements with Israel, because of Turkey’s support for Hamas.

“The fact that Hamas’s headquarters is located in Turkey is very problematic. It severely impedes everything,” the minister said. As long as Turkey’s approach to Hamas doesn’t change, the minister said, the countries’ relations won’t improve.

Karel Valansi, a political analyst for the T24 Turkish online newspaper, told Yisrael Hayom that Erdogan’s comments on Friday were “a positive declaration, without a doubt.”

“We haven’t heard anything of this sort from the Turkish president recently. Since the spring, there have been rumors about normalization between Turkey and Israel. Particularly noteworthy is the analysis in the Turkish press about possible normalization,” Valansi added.

One Israeli who is keenly familiar with the Turkish president is a former ambassador to Turkey between 2003-2007, Pini Avivi. “I wasn’t surprised by Erdogan’s desire for better relations with Israel,” he told Yisrael Hayom, “but by the fact that he said it out loud, which is incredibly significant.”

Avivi said: “In Erdogan’s constellation of considerations, he is led by two central tenets – the first is ‘neo-Ottomanism’ and defending all Muslims. The second is to continue maintaining with Israel, to the greatest extent possible, not the past security relationship and joint military exercises of the past, but at least the whole matter of economic relations, which have grown in scope from $1 billion to $5.5 billion.”

In terms of the countries’ military and intelligence ties, Avivi said, “I can understand that the situation in which Erdogan finds himself in Syria is affecting him. He, similar to Israel, is very concerned about the Iranians, and in his case it’s important to note that it’s Sunni against Shiite. It’s true there hasn’t been a war between Iran and Turkey for 300 years, but there is rivalry there.”

It’s not in Erdogan’s character to say one thing and mean something else, according to Avivi. “If he speaks, then he means what he’s saying. Beyond that, I think the Arab countries that moved toward normalization with Israel also affected him, along with the issue of the American sanctions.”

Ankara has slammed the U.S.-brokered deals, with Erdogan previously threatening to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE and withdraw its envoy. Turkey also slammed Bahrain’s decision to formalize ties as a blow to efforts to defend the Palestinian cause.

In 2018, Turkey and Israel expelled each other’s ambassadors due to Israel’s crackdown on weekly Gaza border riots and Hamas’s campaign of cross-border arson via incendiary balloons.

In August this year, Israel accused Turkey of giving passports to a dozen Hamas members in Istanbul, describing the move as “a very unfriendly step.”

Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel in 1949. They enjoyed warm relations and strong defense ties until Erdogan’s rise to power.

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