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Fragility of Middle East alliances becomes ever more apparent

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Three recent developments lay bare the fragility of Middle Eastern alliances and a rebalancing of their priorities: the Russian-Turkish compromise on an assault on the rebel-held Syrian region of Idlib, the fate of troubled Abu Dhabi airline Ettihad, and battles over reconstruction of Syria.

These developments highlight the fact that competition among Middle Eastern rivals and ultimate power within the region’s various alliances is increasingly as much economic and commercial as it is military and geopolitical. Battles are fought as much on geopolitical fronts as they are on economic and cultural battlefields such as soccer.

As a result, the fault lines of various alliances across the greater Middle East, a region that stretches from North Africa to north-western China, are coming to the fore.

The cracks may be most apparent in the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance but lurk in the background of Gulf cooperation with Israel in confronting Iran as well as the unified front put forward by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Russia, prevented, at least for now, a rupture with Turkey, by delaying an all-out attack on Idlib despite Iranian advocacy of an offensive. Turkey, already home to three million Syrians, feared that a Syrian-Russian assault, would push hundreds of thousands, if not millions more across its border.

If Iran was the weakest link in the debate about Idlib, it stands stronger in its coming competition with Russia for the spoils of reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria.

Similarly, Russia appears to be ambivalent towards a continued Iranian military presence in post-war Syria, a potential flashpoint given Israel’s opposition and Israeli attacks that led earlier this month to the downing of a Russian aircraft.

By the same token, Turkey, despite its backing of Qatar in its 15-month-old dispute with a Saudi-UAE-led alliance that is boycotting the Gulf state diplomatically and economically, poses perhaps the greatest challenge to Qatari efforts to project itself globally by operating one of the world’s best airlines and positioning itself as a sports hub.

Turkey, despite its failure this week to win the right to host Euro 2024 and its lack of the Gulf’s financial muscle, competes favourably on every other front with Qatar as well as the UAE that too is seeking to project itself through soft as well as hard power and opposes Mr. Erdogan because of his Islamist leanings, ties to Iran, and support of Qatar. Turkey wins hands down against the small Gulf states when it comes to size, population, location, industrial base, military might, and sports performance.

That, coupled with a determination to undermine Qatar, was likely one reason, why the UAE’s major carriers, Emirates and Etihad that is troubled by a failed business model, have, despite official denials, been quietly discussing a potential merger that would create the world’s largest airline.

Countering competition from Turkish Airlines that outflanks both UAE carriers with 309 passenger planes that service 302 destinations in 120 countries may well have been another reason. Emirates, the larger of the two Emirati carriers, has, a fleet of 256 aircraft flying to 150 destinations in 80 countries.

These recent developments suggest that alliances, particularly the one that groups Russia, Turkey and Iran, are brittle and transactional, geared towards capitalizing on immediate common interests rather than shared long-term goals, let alone values.

That is true even if Russia and Turkey increasingly find common ground in concepts of Eurasianism. It also applies to Turkey and Qatar who both support Islamist groups as well as to Saudi Arabia and the UAE who closely coordinate policies but see their different goals put on display in Yemen.

The fragility of the alliances is further underwritten by Turkish, Russian and Iranian aspirations of resurrecting empire in a 21st century mould and a Saudi quest for regional dominance.

Notions of empire have informed policies long before realignment across Eurasia as a result of the focus of the United States shifting from the Middle East to Asia, the rise of China. increasingly strained relations between the West and Russia, and the greater assertiveness of Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran.

Then president Suleyman Demirel told this writer already in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent, mostly ethnically Turkic Central Asian republics that “Turkey’s world stretches from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.”

In a world in which globalization is shaped by geopolitical zones rather than individual countries, Russia’s imperative is to be a region by defining itself as an Asian rather than a European power that would be on par with China, the European Union, and a US zone of influence.

“Putin does not think along national lines. He thinks in terms of larger blocks, and, ultimately in terms of the world order,” said former Portuguese minister for Europe, Bruno Macaes in a recently published book, The Dawn of Eurasia.

In doing so, Russia is effectively turning its back on Europe as it reinvents itself as an Asian power on the basis of a Eurasianism, a century-old ideology that defines Russia as a Eurasian rather than a European power.

The Eurasian Economic Union, that groups Russia, Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia, is a vehicle that allows Russia to establish itself as a block in the borderland between Europe and Asia.

Similarly, Eurasianism has gained currency in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who enabled by the demise of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of a Turkic world, projects his country as a crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia rather than a European bridge to Asia.

In that vein, Turkish columnist Sinan Baykent projected this week’s fence-mending visit to Germany by Mr. Erdogan and his proposal for a summit on Syria of Turkish, Russian, German and French leaders as a Eurasian approach to problem solving.

The meeting between Mr. Erdogan and German chancellor Angela Merkel was meant “to pave the way for a Eurasian solution for the region… There is a new axis forming today between Berlin, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran and maybe Paris… All of these countries are fed up with American unilateralism and excessive policies displayed by the Trump administration.,” Mr. Baykent said.

If Turkey and Russia’s vision of their place in the world is defined to a large extent by geography, Iran’s topology dictates a more inward-looking view despite accusations that it is seeking to establish itself as the Middle East’s hegemon.

Iran is a fortress. Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the ocean, with a wasteland at its centre,” noted Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform. Gulf fears are rooted not only in deep-seated distrust of Iran’s Islamic regime, but also in the fact that the foundation of past Persian empire relied on control of plains in present-day Iraq.

As a result, the manoeuvring of Gulf states, in contrast to Turkey and Russia, is driven less by a conceptual framing of their place in the world and more by regional rivalry and regime survival. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE walk a fine line focusing geopolitically on an increasingly unpredictable United States and economically on China and the rest of Asia, including Russia, Korea and Japan.

What the plight of Idlib, potential change in aviation and competition for reconstruction contracts highlight is the brittleness of Middle Eastern alliances that threatens to be reinforced by economics becoming an increasingly important factor alongside geopolitics.

“Stakes for all parties are starting to divert from each other in Syria and the prospects of cooperation with Russia and Iran are becoming more challenging,” said Turkish columnist Nuray Mert commenting on the situation in Idlib. Her analysis is as valid for Idlib as it for the prospects of many of the Middle East alliances.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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The US-Iran deal and its implications for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe

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Image credit: EPA

The ongoing meetings between the US and Iran since the beginning of April in Vienna show new signs of progress. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister, in the last days suggested that a ‘new understanding’ is being shaped. Any possibility of reaching an agreement and the US returning to the deal once abandoned by former US President Donald Trump, will result in a new state of affairs in wider Eurasia. New opportunities may also emerge for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe creating new sources for security and development.

The nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and six world powers – the USA, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany – back in 2015 was envisaged to bring Iran’s nuclear enrichment process under stricter international inspection and monitoring. In response, the US and other participants of the deal pledged to lift sanctions imposed on Iran. 

However, in May 2018 the process was mostly undermined by former US President Donald Trump, whose administration decided to withdraw from the deal. The withdrawal was followed by a new wave of sanctions and targeted assassinations of a few prominent Iranians, among them General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, killed by an American drone strike in Iraq in January 2020. All the efforts of the Trump administration to dismantle the Iranian regime and its ambitions resulted in the resumption of the nuclear enrichment program. Upon his election, President Joe Biden expressed his sincere interest in returning to the deal. This led to the recent negotiations between Tehran and Washington in the Austrian capital. 

The fact that Iran and the US are mutually interested in the restoration of the JCPOA can be explained in a number of ways. The most apparent aspect is the US return to the international arena which it, to some extent, left under Trump’s isolationist policy. The American active engagement in the nuclear deal with Iran is aimed at various targets. In reviving the deal, Washington may hinder the hardliners’ return to power in Iran during the upcoming presidential elections this summer. Besides, Iran is becoming a regional bastion for China, which uses Iran’s economic vulnerabilities to maximise its gains. Finally, the rapprochement of Turkey and Russia creates another danger for US interests in the region, prompting it to reconsider its politics in the Middle East. In other words, the US and Iran need this recovery in relations for reasons stemming from the core principle of Realism, the balance of power; in order not to allow dramatic shifts in the geopolitical landscape, not only in the Middle East but also in central Eurasia. 

Russia’s strengthened stance in the South Caucasus following the second Karabakh war can primarily be explained by its emerging relations with Turkey, which were described by Russia’s chief diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, as ‘sui generis co-operation and competition’. This odd couple could dismantle hopes of peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, France and Russia. The Russian-Turkish duo have created the vast majority of the broader region’s flash points ranging from Libya to Syria and Karabakh. Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey is in Moscow’s favour and is aimed at disuniting NATO. On the other hand, Turkey’s bold politics speak about its global ambitions and desire to set its own course. Both behaviours are in direct contradiction of American vital interests, which is reflected in harsh criticism of the Kremlin and Ankara. In the case of Moscow, this reached a historic post-Cold War peak – Biden’s recent scandalous statement on Putin, calling him a ‘killer’, has inflamed relations between the two countries. 

The USA is actively supporting any activities aimed at decreasing the influence of Russia and China in various parts of the world. One of such projects is the so-called ‘Three Seas Initiative’. Created in 2015 by the presidents of Croatia and Poland, this project brings together the twelve states of Eastern and Central Europe located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. The main goal is to counter the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region, which is less developed than Western Europe and more open to foreign direct investments. Aimed at developing infrastructure, energy co-operation and digitalisation, the initiative seeks to create ”North-South” energy and infrastructure corridors. Given the US ambitions to reduce the region’s dependence on Russian energy supplies, the nuclear deal with Iran opens new opportunities. The fact that the Chinese Silk Road is heading to Europe via Central Asia and Turkey, it could be better to allow Iran to export its gas through Armenia and Georgia to Eastern Europe under the Black Sea. Firstly, this would solve the European dependence on Russian energy supplies. The export of natural resources has been traditionally used by the Kremlin as a foreign policy instrument. The reduction of dependence on Russian commodities will ultimately reshape the Kremlin’s behaviour abroad making it more predictable and constructive. The fear that this may plunge Russia into China’s orbit, turning it a puppet state for Beijing, are groundless given the Russian bear’s historical caution of the Chinese dragon. The second important contribution of the Iranian pipeline will be to increase the energy security of Ukraine, which is trying to integrate itself into European infrastructure and move come closer to EU standards at the same time as coping with Russian energy blackmail.

The Iranian pipeline is able to solve the economic and energy independence of the Eastern and Central European EU member states which participate in the ‘Three Seas Initiative’. It may liberalise the energy market of the region and will boost economic development, reducing its gap with Western Europe. 

Finally, the US-Iranian possible rapprochement may also change the state of affairs in the South Caucasus region. The increased Russian presence and active Turkish involvement in the region are aimed at keeping other external actors – and first and foremost the West – out of it. In the long run, this will threaten Georgia’s European dreams in the same way it has harmed Armenia’s democratic aspirations. Alternatively, the vision of being a transit route for Iranian energy pipelines to Europe, whilst also helping to connect India and Eastern Europe, could elevate the security of Georgia and Armenia to a new level.

Therefore, the US-Iran agreement is essential for restoring the balance of power in the region, in order not to allow the main competitors to maximise their gains. This deal promises new opportunities for Central Eurasia, creating room for manoeuvre for the region’s small and fragile countries.

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The Mediterranean: Will Turkey be successful in pulling Egypt to its side?

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The Mediterranean acts as a channel connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The region has, however, become a bone of contention due to varying political setups, religions and cultural values, economic resources, and the existence of crisis situations. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece is highly contentious, developing new complexities that worries the international community. Greece prefersinternational arbitrationwhile Turkey favors the option of bilateral negotiationsconstituting asthe main cause of friction between the two countries.

Historically, root of the crisis also lies in conflicting claims by Turkey and Greece concerning maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), threatening Ankara’s “Blue Homeland”doctrine. To further aggravate the situation, the dispute has now been intertwined withdisputes in the eastern Mediterranean among Turkey and a coalition of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that are doused in geopolitical tensions, energy disputes and Libyan conflict.

Gas discoveries in eastern Mediterranean have increased Turkey’s greed for hydrocarbon exploration. Turkey aims to solve its longstanding economic challenges and reduce its energy dependency due to which the country has increased its energy-related exploration activities in the region resulting in a major gas discovery thus shaping the region towards resource competition. Moreover, Turkey seeks to establish itself as an energy hub for Europe and has signed several oil and gas pipeline deals with Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, its aspirations have significantly remained unsuccessful, and the gas discoveries have deepened its concerns of being left out from the region’s emerging energy and security order due to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).

Conflict in the Mediterranean has unwittingly pushed Libya into a proxy war. Scuffle between Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Turkey to increase its support for GNA by sending troops and weapons to Libya which is a move directly affecting the ongoing situation in the region. GNA signing its EEZ agreement with Turkey while Greece turning to LNA and signing an agreement with Egypt have contributed to exacerbating the dispute. Not only this, but major European powers have shown keen interest in the region that patently require Turkey’s support in terms of migration and counterterrorism. If the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA stabilizes, this would result in an ordered flow of migrants to Europe.

Moreover, Europeans do not wish to abandon a 2016 German-brokered deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) that allows Turkey to maintain a considerable control over refugee movements into Europe. On counterterrorism, France to fight against the terrorism in southern Libya and Benghazi, allied with Haftar against Turkey, despite recognizing the GNA’s sovereignty.  France has developed security partnerships with UAE and Egypt, who are opponents of Turkey in the region.

Egypt’s possession of two liquefication facilities, making the country act as both an exporter and re-exporter of LNG including a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline beneficial to Egypt in terms of economic stability, and help establish itself as a regional power. Cyprus-Egypt pipeline will allow Cyprus to export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, argues that revenue generated from the process must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC). Turkey’s continuation on the belligerent course will bring consequences for Egypt making its support for Greece more prominent. Turkey also stands with Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that focuses on exploitation and regional energy resource sale.

Turkey is keen to become a regional gas trade hub thus looks forward to the initiative of a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which transfers from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey. Reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas could certainly achieve the goals. Talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe were also initiated, however relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan blatantly supporting Palestine. This led Israel to work with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, stemming in devaluation of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline.

Most of the Middle Eastern countries have recalibratedtheir foreign policy following Joe Biden’s presidential win in the United States. Similarly, both Turkey and Egypt have begun to revise their foreign policies as well. The two countries have initiated a series of new diplomatic dialogue including Turkey and Greece signing a maritime delimitation agreement in August 2020.Nonetheless Egypt did not accept Greece’s thesis of having claims over islands in the south of Aegean Sea and it also announced a new oil and gas exploration bid with taking Turkey’s coordinates of the continental shelf into consideration. Moreover, Egypt began to change its Libya policy and improve relations with GNA. Turkey has stated that it is willing to negotiate dialogue with Egypt and focus on common interests.

Understanding the new developments, it is suggested to continue to alleviate tensions as the two countries enjoy same moral values at cultural level, given their shared past and historical ties. That is only possible if the expansionist pan-Islamistproject stops with Erdogan and does not continue with future Turkish governments. Cairo and Ankara must move together on the issues concerning Palestine, Libyan conflict, and the eastern Mediterranean. Despite possible pressure from the Democrats in the Biden administration, Egypt seems reluctant to consider convergence on Islamic synthesisand integration of Muslim brotherhood. Complete normalization of relations between the two sides may take time therefore to establish trust in one another, all parties must take certain confidence-building steps.

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Israel and Turkey in search of solutions

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Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.

Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.

The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.

The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.

In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.

In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.

In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.

On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.

Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.

Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.

In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.

On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.

In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.

Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.

Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).

This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.

The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.

Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.

Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.

Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.

In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.

Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.

We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.

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