Home inFocus Trials & Triumphs: Israel at 75 (Spring 2023) Erdoğan Stays the Course After the Earthquakes

Erdoğan Stays the Course After the Earthquakes

Harold Rhode Spring 2023
The President of Israel, Isaac Herzog, and the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a joint press conference in 2022. (Photo: Haim Tzach / Government Press Office)

Some years ago, there was a heated discussion between a Turkish diplomat who spoke excellent English and a State Department Foreign Service Official (FSO). The Turkish diplomat was denouncing human rights in America. The FSO responded: “What have we done wrong? What can we do to put it right?”

He misunderstood his interlocutor. In the Muslim world, intimidation, and the willingness to use power breed respect. Giving in represents weakness. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can and does rail against the US and American policies, but wouldn’t dare to do the same to Russia or China because they would respond by “squeezing” back. Turkey, and not only Turkey but also other countries, fear Russia and China; they don’t fear the United States, and they don’t fear Israel. Today in China, where the Chinese subject Muslim Uyghurs – who are Turks of both the same religious and ethnic origins –  to mass imprisonment, Turkey is silent.

That’s because Turkey needs Chinese aid and trade to keep its economy afloat.

As the Turkish economy declines, and in particular after the earthquake, however, Turkey is also reaching out to countries that were considered adversaries – including Israel.

Erdoğan’s Turkey

It would be an understatement to say that Israeli-Turkish relations are complicated.

Erdogan has not turned over a new leaf. He remains committed to the same radical Muslim view of the world, pushing a radical Islamic ideology which envisions a complete Muslim takeover of the world.

But his vision of the world – with Turkey at the center – had begun to collapse even before the massive February earthquakes. The economy was in shambles; people didn’t have enough money to put food on the table. In the past, when things were tight, Turkish citizens – ever so concerned about hiding their problems from others – would go to the store and, for example, buy a whole pumpkin even though they couldn’t afford one. Asking to buy a piece of a pumpkin would be shameful because others would make fun of them for not being able to purchase a whole one. And shame – i.e., concern about what others would say about you behind your back – often means more than life itself in Middle Eastern culture.

Things had gotten so bad before the massive earthquakes that people had in fact swallowed their pride and bought slices of the pumpkin. And they blamed Erdoğan for their descent into poverty. With the general election that was scheduled for June 18 (it may be changed now), he saw the need to get a handle on Turkey’s desperate economic situation or he might, even with his ability to manipulate election results, end up losing.

His resourceful cunning saved him.

Courting His Enemies

Erdogan knew that he had to make an accommodation with his sworn enemies – i.e., Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, etc. Until then, he had worked with Qatar, along with the fanatical Shiite regime in Iran (which hosts many of Erdoğan’s fellow Muslim Brotherhood [MB] leaders), to overthrow the heads of the above-mentioned countries. But now he needed help from his fellow Sunnis who controlled the Arab side of the Gulf, so he “sucked up” and made nice to them. The Gulf Arabs were under no illusions as to Erdoğan’s ultimate goal and have only cautiously been offering him help.

But like Israel’s Gulf allies, the Israelis understood exactly what Erdoğan was up to.

Israel’s Position

Israel’s then-newly installed President Isaac Herzog traveled to Turkey to meet Erdoğan. But from two statements he made in Turkey, it is clear that Herzog understood Erdoğan’s game. When he visited the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Secular Democratic Republic, whom Erdoğan loathes, Herzog, as required by protocol, signed the visitors book. His inscription is a quotation from the Book of Psalms (Chapter 34, Verse 15) “Turn away from doing evil, make peace and pursue it.”

Turks generally are not well-versed in the Jewish Bible, but in this case, the subtle implication wasn’t lost on them. The message, although Herzog referred to Ataturk, was directed against Erdoğan personally. Turkey’s political class, steeped in the subtleties of Turkish culture, understood what Herzog meant to convey.

There are approximately 20,000 Jews living in Turkey, primarily in Istanbul and Izmir. President Herzog also addressed a meeting of all the rabbis of Turkey. In his speech, he stated when push comes to shove, Israel, in the end, sees itself responsible for the fate of all Jews throughout the world.

Despite all the formal niceties in which the Israeli and Turkish presidents engaged, Turkey still permits Hamas terrorists to operate in the country, planning and directing Hamas’s activities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (Judea and Samaria). And Turkey still quietly, yet actively, supports the MB and other militantly anti-Israel Muslim extremists in the West Bank who are bent on destroying the State of Israel.

Israel, Greece, and Cyprus

None of this is lost on Israel’s leaders, which is why Greece, Cyprus and Israel are planning a tri-lateral summit later this year. Neither of the Hellenic countries had positive relations with Israel before Erdoğan came to power. But when he became prime minister in 2003 and then president of Turkey in 2014, he went about systematically destroying relations with these three non-Muslim neighbors. It was only natural that Greece, Cyprus, and Israel would develop a strong alliance against Erdoğan’s radical Islamic Turkish policies, both economically and militarily. And given the patterns of Jewish history over the past 2,000 years, it stands to reason that Israel understands its relations with Turkey in terms of the modern Hebrew expression: “Honor him and suspect him.”

The Earthquakes

The earthquakes have only complicated things for Erdoğan. The areas hit by the quakes are largely Kurdish, with some Arabs living there as well. Israel was the first of 40 countries that came to the rescue.

Listening to the words of the Israeli rescue teams who came back from helping is instructive. The locals repeatedly told the Israelis that they preferred Israeli rescue-teams to others because “Israel cares.” Certainly, that is NOT the conclusion Erdoğan wanted Turkish citizens to reach.

To add insult to injury, the Turkish agency responsible for fortifying Turkish buildings in that earthquake-prone area proved wildly incompetent, and the locals know exactly why that was so. That agency used to have competent officials who knew how to do their jobs. But Erdoğan replaced these officials with his allies – militant Islamists who knew nothing about making earthquake-proof buildings and have been expert only at taking bribes for letting builders cut corners regarding earthquake proofing.

Erdoğan, however, has also been superb in pulling rabbits out of hats.

In this case, Turkey’s economy has improved lately largely because of Turkish exports to Russia and China, and from an infusion of cash from Russians looking to avoid international sanctions. This is particularly notable in light of the fact that Erdoğan’s Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance. The members of NATO, except for Turkey (and Hungary) want Finland and Sweden to join the alliance, which would help strengthen it against Russia. And when Sweden gave in to some Turkish demands, Erdoğan upped the ante, which shows that he cares more about himself than about helping his nominal Western allies against Russia.


As long as the West and its Arab allies keep in mind what Erdoğan’s ultimate goals – his form of Islam dominating the entire world – we might, when it can be useful to us, find common ground with Turkey. But we should never take our eyes off Erdoğan’s goal. His extremist form of Islam endangers not only the non-Muslim world, but many in the Muslim world as well. Countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and others, among them Israel, are natural allies of the West against him and his supporters. Erdoğan recognizes the value of patience (“Sabir” in Turkish and equivalents in Arabic and Persian). He knows how to wait us out. He knows how to entice us with nice words. Words, whether in signed documents or words as spoken, mean so much to Westerners.

But in Erdoğan’s part of the world, words are often nothing more than politeness, and mask what the Turks really intend. Two can play at this game should America choose. Even though this sort of diplomacy is maddening to US officials, it would behoove them now to follow Erdoğan’s lead and confuse him. The late Secretary of State George Shultz, meeting with an American ambassador about to assume his new post in a Middle Eastern country, said, “Always remember that we represent America, not the countries to which we are posted.”

The US diplomat arguing with a Turkish counterpart should have responded with something like: “Shame on you. How dare you say that? Look at how you treat your minorities in Turkey. Why don’t you let your Kurds, for example, learn Kurdish? Why can’t people be free to learn what they want?”

In the end, we must remember that Erdogan needs us much more than we need him. But up to now, we haven’t.

Harold Rhode, Ph.D., is a former official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has lived and studied in Iran, Turkey, and many parts of the Arab world.