Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had some rarely seen guests at the presidential palace in Ankara on Wednesday. He warmly received members of the Jewish community in Turkey and a delegation from the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States (ARIS), which is composed of representatives from Azerbaijan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Albania, Kazakhstan, UAE, Uganda and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The Jewish clergy’s prayer ceremony for Erdoğan was widely shared on social media, with many social media users questioning the sincerity of the image provided by Erdoğan, who is known for his highly anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Drawing attention to the general rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in his address to the delegation, Erdoğan stated that anti-Semitism is not a serious problem in Turkey. “We did not and will not allow inhumane ideas such as racism, antisemitism or intolerance to people from different religions find ground in these lands,” he claimed.
He also reminded the delegation of the Jews who were persecuted in Spain during the Ottoman period and were allowed to flee to Ottoman lands, an example from history that Turkish officials never stop referencing to show how tolerant Turkey is of other religions.
“We are a nation that welcomed the Jews who escaped from the Inquisition in 1492. The spirit that enabled the Ottomans to embrace the Jews is still alive today. During the Second World War, many Jews who were sent to concentration camps were rescued due to the determination of the Turkish government and Turkish diplomats. We appreciate the contributions made by our Jewish citizens for the development, strengthening and achievement of our country’s goals for centuries.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accepted a delegation of the Turkish Jewish community, the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, Chief Rabbi Lazar of Russia, tonight at Ankara.@tcbestepe @tyahuditoplumu pic.twitter.com/0DyfT5xxj7
— Alliance Rabbis Islamic States (@RabbisAlliance) December 22, 2021
The most curious part of Erdoğan’s speech was what he said about Israel. It is known that Erdoğan has been eager to improve relations with Israel for some time. He used very careful language regarding Israel, which he has repeatedly characterized as a terrorist state in the past.
“Our warnings to the Israeli government are to ensure that matters are approached from the perspective of long-term peace and stability in the Middle East. Steps to be taken on the Palestinian issue, especially in Jerusalem, will contribute to the security and stability of not only the Palestinians but also Israel. In this regard, I attach great importance to our renewed dialogue with the president of Israel, Mr. Herzog, and the prime minister, Mr. Bennett,” Erdoğan said.
Erdoğan last year harshly criticized the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, and stated that recalling the Turkish ambassador was on the table as an option. He defined the UAE’s initiative as selling out the Palestinian cause and declared that Turkey would not fail to defend the rights of the Palestinians even if it was alone.
However, Turkey, which had problems with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was left alone in the Islamic world when the leading Arab countries established diplomatic relations with Israel. The cost to the image of Turkey, which apparently has problems almost with every country in the region, went beyond Erdoğan’s personal gain. The gradual deterioration of the economy and Turkey’s need for foreign capital have forced a change in policy.
Efforts to improve relations, which first started with Egypt, continued with the UAE. Erdoğan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and the UAE’s de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan met in Ankara last month. There is a notable decrease in the support given to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with which Egypt and the Saudis are extremely unhappy.
There are also efforts by Erdoğan to improve relations with Israel, which have long been at a low level. Erdoğan had a phone conversation with new Israeli President Yitshak Herzog and congratulated him on his election.
Last month Erdoğan released an Israeli couple who was detained on spying charges for almost a week. Considering how much Erdoğan loves hostage diplomacy, the release of the Israeli couple in such a short period of time is nothing more than a declaration of goodwill.
However, the Turkish opposition claims that the harsh policy towards Israel is never followed the way Erdoğan has tried to present. When the Israeli navy killed nine Turkish and one Turkish-American pro-Palestinian activists in the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010, it sparked a diplomatic crisis as then-Prime Minister Erdoğan used the issue extensively as a political tool at domestic rallies. In 2011 Erdoğan announced that Turkey was suspending trade and military relations with Israel. However, it was exposed by the main opposition Republican People’s Party that the Safran 1, which belonged to Erdoğan’s elder son Burak, sailed between Turkish and Israeli ports many times transporting cargo back and forth.
Ironically, in 2016 Erdoğan refuted his own argument and criticized the organizers of the Mavi Marmara flotilla, saying, “Did you ask the then-prime minister for permission to organize that aid campaign?”
Erdoğan also told his guests on Wednesday that “despite the differences of opinion on Palestine, relations with Israel in the fields of economy, trade and tourism are progressing.”