Israel should learn from how Turkey is handling Russia

As the Jewish Agency crisis unfolds, Israel should take a leaf out of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s method of dealing with the Russian bear.

By  Ariel Bulshtein, ISRAEL HAYOM    07-28-2022

This week, as Israel was busy with the disturbing downward spiral in ties with Russia, and responses from all directions ran the gamut between “we’ll show them” and “everything is lost,” I did what people here don’t like to do – I looked at others and tried to learn from their experience.

In Israel, others’ experience is often dismissed, and for some reason, people are certain that every question and challenge in this world is unique to us. Of course, the truth is different. We aren’t alone, and many of the problems that concern us are also facing other countries. Moreover, sometimes they even find solutions that work fairly well.

The question of how to deal with Russia is a difficult one, but there are people we can learn from. Whom? Someone who I would never use as a role model in other contexts – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While Israel is whispering about what blow the Russians might deliver us next after shutting down the Jewish Agency’s activity there, Erdogan can allow himself to look at the state of his relations with Moscow and rub his hands in satisfaction. Only a week ago, he presided over an agreement between Russia and Ukraine to export Ukrainian grain to the world markets (and even hosted the signing ceremony). About a week from now, he will enjoy a royal welcome from Russian President Vladimir Putin, all without dancing a step to his host’s piping.

One might even hazard a guess and say that Erdogan has cracked the Putin code and managed to maneuver himself into an unusual position. He didn’t have an easy time of it. In 2015, the Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter jet that the Turks claimed had violated their airspace. Both sides were close to a real conflict. The anti-Turkish rhetoric in Russian media outlets, all of which are controlled by the Kremlin, reached new levels – a clear sign that the Russian authorities were laying the groundwork for painful retaliatory steps. Kremlin spokespeople were daring enough to preach to their captive audience that Russia had long-standing claims to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and hint that it might be time to act on them.

But none of the Russian threats were implemented. Instead, the two sides developed a complicated system of give and take from which the Turks benefited greatly, without having to give into Russia’s demands on any major issue. Surprisingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the brutal war being waged there did not change the Turks’ situation. The opposite – Russia’s eroding international situation and its involvement in a pointless war only increased its dependence on Erdogan, while also freeing him from the traditional fear of the Russian bear.

Judge for yourselves. On one hand, the Turks are clearly condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine and not hesitating to use harsh terms to describe the Russian attack on the civilian population. On the other, they are allowing Russia to export natural gas via the TurkStream conduit system, which is providing Russia with cash while also putting money into Turkey’s coffers.

On one hand, the Turks are supplying offensive weapons to Ukraine, and not just any weapons –TB-2 attack drones, which are doing heavy damage to the Russian army. On the other, instead of fearing retribution by Putin, they are enjoying collaborating with him on prestigious, economically important projects like the Akkuyu nuclear power station that experts from the Russian government company Rastom have recently started building.

There are other examples: The Turks are daring to close the Bosporus strait to Russian ships and their airspace to Russian military aircraft, which completely cuts Russia’s transport air force in Syria off from its home bases. But at the same time, they are refusing to apply sanctions to Russian oligarchs and Russian airlines. As a result, the Istanbul airport has become one of the few points of access through which hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens can travel back and forth. In this case, too, their dollars flow into the Turkish economy.

Confused? It’s impossible not to notice the thread that connects the supposedly contradictory steps by the man who dreams of resurrecting the sultans of old. He is not bowing down to the Russians, or venting his rage on them. He simply calculates his moves and does what he thinks is best for Turkey. In his dealings with Moscow, Erdogan doesn’t hesitate to pull out sticks as well as carrots. In contrast, the Lapid-Bennett government has proven this past year that it isn’t aware of the wonderful power of either carrots or sticks.

The results speak for themselves. In striking contrast to the complaints the Ukrainians are voicing about Israel, they are pleased with Turkey’s conduct and thank Erdogan at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Moscow are flourishing rather than falling apart. No one in the Kremlin is considering tying their hands in Syria, using the “Kurdish weapon” against them, or cracking the whip, like Russia is doing with its threats to shutter the Jewish Agency in Russia.

The sad part of the story is that this past year, Israel also had a chance to adopt the Turkish model in its dealings with Moscow and Kyiv. Even before the Turkish president discovered the idea that has stood the test of time and events, it was Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu who invented it. While he was prime minister, Israel wasn’t afraid to stand by Ukraine (we need only mention our vote in the UN against the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula) or build unprecedented freedom of action with Moscow.

What’s encouraging is that it’s still not too late to wake up and implement the Turkish model. To do that, we need to be well-versed in the processes taking place in Russia and the world, and realize – despite the natural Israeli inclination to think otherwise – that most of them are not under our control and don’t even directly involve us. At the same time, it is necessary to understand the preferences, strong points, and weaknesses of our dialogue partners in Moscow and Kyiv so we can understand where to reach out to them and where to decline to help.

The Turkish example illustrates that moments of crises also provide opportunities. It is possible to work with both sides, without losing our moral compass, and get the most out of it for Israel. As a start, I’d recommend that the interim prime minister get on the phone and call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Putin. The government that replaces him will do the rest.

July 30, 2022 | Comments »

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