Turkey in 2021: The Year of Breaking Regional Isolation?

Claiming a role as leader of the Sunni world, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long presented himself as the guardian of the Palestinian cause at the expense of his country’s political ties with Israel. From the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident to the suspension of diplomatic ties in 2018, the strained relations of the two countries stemmed mainly from their uncompromising and contradictory Palestinian policies. However, the transformative developments in Middle East politics following the Abraham Accords raise questions about the future of Ankara’s stance over Palestine.

Despite the ups and downs of Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations, the countries have many common interests when it comes to the resolution of the Eastern Mediterranean crisis and increasing economic cooperation. Both countries’ support for Azerbaijan during the Karabakh war highlighted their shared interests in opposition to Iran as well. Furthermore, the recent normalization between Turkey’s ally Qatar and the United Arab Emirates opened an opportunity for Ankara to break out of its regional isolation, which could prompt Turkey to adapt its foreign policy to the new dynamics of the Middle East. With the country’s aggressive stances in the region unlikely to be tolerated by the Biden administration, Turkey is very likely to use every opportunity it gets to increase ties with Israel and Gulf countries, which may come at the cost of Erdogan’s longstanding Palestinian position.

Turkey’s regional interests increasingly contradict those of Russia

Turkey’s relations with the U.S. are at a very low point due to the S-400 missile purchases from Russia, after which Turkish defense industry officials were sanctioned by Washington. However, Turkey’s regional interests increasingly contradict those of Russia as well, in different conflict zones such as Karabakh, Libya, and Syria. Moreover, the country’s looming economic recession will force Erdogan to abandon his anti-Western rhetoric and to seek to mend ties with his Western counterparts. In this regard, Erdogan sees Israel as a means to open dialogue with the U.S., and Ankara is already set to improve bilateral ties with Tel Aviv. Communication between the two countries continues at the intelligence level and in December 2020, Turkey selected a new ambassador to Israel, though it is not yet clear whether Israel will appoint an ambassador to Ankara in return. Erdogan explicitly stated that he wanted better relations with the Jewish state, albeit with continued criticism of Israel’s Palestinian policies, saying that the issue was Turkey’s “red line.”

Turkey’s staunch opposition to the Gulf countries’ supposed abandonment of pro-Palestinian positions during the normalization process with Israel also seems to have loosened in recent weeks. In late November, Erdogan made a phone call to King Salman of Saudi Arabia to express his willingness to enhance ties during the G20 summit hosted by Riyadh. In the first week of 2021, Saudi Arabia’s ending of the blockade against Qatar gave even more important signals about potential regional cooperation, as the Qatari officials told sources that Doha could play a role in mediation between Turkey and the Gulf. This major development was followed by the UAE foreign minister’s warm messages to Turkey, saying that the UAE does not have any reason to be in conflict with Turkey, though highlighting that the country’s support for the Muslim brotherhood is a concern. Even though Ankara has welcomed these statements, the two countries seem to have a long way to go to improve their relations given their conflicting interests in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Finally, Turkey’s easing of its assertive foreign policy is a clear message to the Biden administration that it wants to be at the table in the new political order of the Middle East, especially with the benefit of Erdogan’s personal connection with Donald Trump coming to end.

In the short term, it is very unlikely that Israel is going to take immediate steps to further normalize its ties with Turkey

2021 might be a year for Turkey to restore its strained relations with Israel and Arab states, yet it is unknown how many compromises Erdogan is ready to make over his rigid stance on the Palestinians. With another election looming, it is very unlikely that Israel is going to take immediate steps to further normalize ties with Turkey in the short term. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu will not risk his career by putting the spotlight on possible dialogue with Erdogan, a man who is disliked by the Israeli public. In the long term, on the other hand, Turkey might be expected to take concrete steps to expel hundreds of Hamas officials who are currently residing in the country in exchange for better ties with Tel Aviv. Its support for Hamas has always been a big security concern for Israel, and now is an apt time for Tel Aviv to pressure Ankara on the matter. However, as Erdogan sees Hamas as a legitimate Palestinian and Islamist actor, he will have difficulties in deciding what to do next to combat his isolation in the region.

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