American Jewish Leaders Met With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan / AP

JERUSALEM—A delegation of American Jewish leaders met this week in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an apparent indication that normalization of Turkey's relations with Israel is in the offing.

The 20-man delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations reportedly passed on to him messages from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with whom they met in Jerusalem last week.

Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel after the Israeli navy in 2010 blocked an attempt by a Turkish-led civilian flotilla to run Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish militants were killed when they used knives and metal bars against naval commandos attempting to take over their vessel. In subsequent years, Erdogan repeatedly condemned Israel with fiery rhetoric. He did this in particular in Arab countries when he was attempting to achieve the status of a regional Muslim leader.

During Israel’s offensive in Gaza two year ago, he said "Israel has surpassed Hitler in barbarity" and accused it of "systematic terrorism" and "state terrorism." In talking about Israel in addresses at home, he would often refer to it "that country to the south."

However, recent events in the Middle East have led to a sharp change in tone. He told Turkish reporters last December that he favored normalization of ties between Turkey and Israel. "There is so much the region could gain from such a normalization process," he said. The two countries have had close relations in the past.

According to the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, Erdogan told his Jewish visitors Tuesday that he regards anti-Semitism and Islamophoia as equally offensive. His criticism of Israeli political leaders, he said—his criticism of Netanyahu has been biting—should not be understood as being against all Israeli citizens. He said that after normalization of relations between the two countries is achieved it would be possible to discuss "energy agreements", an apparent reference to the large reservoirs of natural gas that has been discovered in Israel’s off-shore waters.

The American-Jewish delegation was led by Rabbi Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference of Presidents. The head of the Jewish community in Turkey, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, also attended the meeting.

One of the organizations represented by the delegation, the Anti-Defamation League, had given a medal to Erdogan in 2004, but when his relations with Israel deteriorated they asked for the medal back. The medal citation referred to Turkey’s commitment to its Jewish citizens and its efforts for a peaceful Middle East.

Israeli and Turkish negotiating teams were to meet Wednesday as part of ongoing efforts to achieve reconciliation between the two countries. In previous talks, Israel agreed to Turkish demands for an apology for the killings and payment of $20 million in compensation to families. Israel, however, has resisted Turkish demands for an end to the naval blockade because of the danger of Hamas attempting to smuggle in rockets and other armaments by ship. Recent Turkish statements have suggested a readiness for Ankara to accept instead steps to improve living conditions in Gaza.

Update Feb. 11, 2:27 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated that the American Jewish Committee gave a medal to Erdogan in 2004, citing a Daily Sabah reporter. The American Jewish Committee never gave a medal to Erdogan, according to an AJC spokesman.