For years there has been an ice age between Israel and Turkey. Under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there was no longer any sign of the once close ties between the two countries. In 2010, when Israeli special forces attacked the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which was then supposed to break through the blockade of the Gaza Strip, a fight broke out on board. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the process. Turkey then expelled its Israeli ambassador and ceased military cooperation with Israel.
But times change. At the beginning of March, Israeli President Isaac Herzog paid another visit to Turkey at Erdogan’s invitation – in order to “reinvigorate relations”.
So far, Erdogan has described himself as an advocate of pan-Islamist concerns. Now he is facing backlash from his own camp, which has sharply condemned Herzog’s visit.
The International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), for example, was indignant: “We were surprised by the official visit of the head of state of the Zionist occupying power to our sanctuary and our first target, the Turkish Republic, and by the official reception given to him by the Turkish presidency has prepared,” read a statement. The IUMS was founded by Yusuf al-Quaradawi, the ideological leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is also currently its President. The Union even described the visit as “threatening”, but at the same time referred to Turkey’s “honorable attitude against Israeli occupation and aggression”.
Erdogan has become something of a political leader for the Islamists over the past two decades. He campaigned for Islamist causes. According to Gallup’s Annual Index of Global Leaders, he was the most popular Muslim leader in the world. A frontal attack on Erdogan would now lead to a split among the Islamists. After all, they glorified Erdogan for decades. Al-Quaradawi, who personally complained about Herzog’s visit in a tweet, also avoided naming Erdogan.
Nevertheless, Erdogan continues to realign his policies. On Wednesday, Turkey’s embassy in Tel Aviv condemned the latest in a series of terrorist attacks in Israel. Five people were killed in the Bnei Brak shooting, eXXpress reported, including an Arab-Israeli police officer and two Ukrainian nationals.
Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, hailed the terrorists as “heroic,” while Palestinian Islamic Jihad called them part of “resisting the occupation.” Turkey’s words are different: “We are concerned that these attacks, which have increased in recent days, will plunge the region into conflict again ahead of the upcoming Ramadan and Passover holidays,” the Turkish embassy said. “We send our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in Bnei Brak, as well as to the government and people of Israel, and wish those injured a speedy recovery.”
For years Turkey had been on a collision course with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Saudi Arabia, but now diplomatic isolation and economic strains are forcing Erdogan to change course. Last year he initiated a rapprochement with Egypt. As recently as 2019, he had vowed never to reconcile with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in Egypt, numerous Muslim Brotherhood leaders have fled to Turkey. But now their situation in the country is changing. Turkey recently expelled a number of Muslim Brotherhood activists, including Yasser al-Omda, who was expelled earlier this month for incitement against the Egyptian government.
Without directly criticizing Erdogan, Hamas also expressed its disappointment with the visit and reiterated “our refusal to communicate with the Zionist occupying power and we call for more support for our people to end the occupation and restore our national rights.”
As late as 2020, Erdogan threatened to suspend relations with the United Arab Emirates after they signed a peace treaty with Israel. Then, in February, he visited them himself and met with Crown Prince Bin Zayed.
Meanwhile, some Islamists living in Turkey have decided to bow to Erdogan’s shift in policy, particularly those who could face justice if they return to their home countries.