Erdogan is a leader Israel knows well. To a certain extent Israel is wary about him. From experience, Israel has learnt which side of the bed Erdogan wakes up each morning to know what is in store for Israel that day.
Put another way, Erdogan is a weathercock, and it depends in which direction Erdogan is facing on any given day. Is he a pragmatic realist? Or is he a raging Islamist? Erdogan blows with the political winds based on his mood of the moment.
But what of his main rival, the opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu? Is he good for Israel, or bad for Israel? The answer is probably the latter.
Although Kilicdaroglu has indicated that he would move Turkey closer to the West, that he represents an ethnic minority, the Alevis, and many in the Turkish Jewish community see him as a better candidate for minority rights, he is seen by some Israeli experts as a bad for Turkish-Israel relations having said some disturbing things that impact Israel, including his desire to reopen a sore wound between the Jewish State and Turkey, namely the Mavi Marmara incident.
This was the Turkish ship that sailed to breach the internationally recognized maritime siege on Gaza, a result of unrelenting Hamas terrorism against Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip. Violence took place onboard the Mavi Marmara when Israeli security forces attempted to board the ship. People were killed and injured and, although Israel was justified in bringing the ship to the Israeli port of Ashdod, the Jewish State paid compensation in order to mend ties with Turkey.
But Kilicdaroglu has political allies who were behind the Mavi Marmara incident that remain anti-Israel activists. This does not auger well for stronger, more balanced relationships between the two countries.
When President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, Kilicdaroglu, then a member in the Turkish Parliament, called on Erdogan to sever ties with Israel. Erdogan refused.
In June 2022, when Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, made an official visit to Turkey and met with President Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu made a public visit with one of the Mavi Marmara victim’s family telling Israel, “This incident is not closed for us yet.”
One of Kilicdaroglu’s coalition allies, Temel Karamollaoglu, is radically opposed to official ties with Israel.
Consideration should also be given to Kilicdaroglu’s recent statements against other countries.
He has also lashed out against Saudi Arabia and Greece.
When Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited Ankara in June 2022 to close the book with Turkey and President Erdogan over the Khashoggi murder, Kilicdaroglu was scathing in his public comments saying that “he would be made to pay for what he has done in our land.”
Kilicdaroglu was equally critical of Greece, poking Athens in the eye by reminding them that it was his party leader, then Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who led the Turkish military invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
We are reminded that Turkey occupies Northern Cyprus to this day having driven out thousands of Greece Cypriots from their homes and businesses in the north of that island.
Erdogan is no pro-Israel politician but, on his good days, he is a practical leader who knows that normalization with Israel is good for Turkey both in trade and tourism.
This was on display when Israel was the pre-eminent provider of assistance when Turkey was hit by a devastating earthquake earlier this year.
There is a debate as to whether Kilicdaroglu would end Erdogan’s license for terror organizations such as Hamas that have headquarters based in Turkey. It is doubtful that he would rock the boat and change the status quo in Turkey for at least two years into his presidency should he win the election.
Having said that, leading Israel experts predict that Erdogan will win the runoff.
In a report on Jewish News Syndicate, both Galia Lindenstrauss of the Institute for National Strategic Studies and Dr Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy & Security, both indicated that Erdogan will almost certainly win.
That decision will be made on 28 May.
International Public Diplomacy Director,
Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.