Making Sense of Israel, Erdoğan, and Turkey

An interview with the author of Mosaic’s June essay on how to understand Turkish politics, and the prospects for its relations with America and Israel.


An aerial view of Fatih Mosque as people gather for a funeral in Istanbul on June 24, 2022. Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
An aerial view of Fatih Mosque as people gather for a funeral in Istanbul on June 24, 2022. Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
Last Word
July 8 2022
About the author

Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is the Turkey analyst at Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is the editor of Turkeyscope: Insights on Turkish Affairs.

On June 28, Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, the author of our June essay, “Can a Renewed Alliance Between Israel and Turkey Stabilize the Middle East?,” sat down with Andrew Koss, Mosaic’s senior editor, to talk about Israeli-Turkish relations. Yanarocak comments on the two responses to his essay, which presented diametrically opposed views of the subject, but also expounds on much else. Besides the key issues of geopolitics, Turkey’s relations with Islamic State and with Iran, and the role of Islamism in its foreign policy, the discussion also covered Turkish-Jewish history, Yanarocak’s own family and experiences, and the way the country has changed over the course of the past century. The transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.

Andrew Koss:

You’ve written a brilliant essay for Mosaic about Israeli-Turkish relations. Before we get to the nitty-gritty of the essay, and the two responses to it, I think our readers would like to know a little bit about you. You’re an Israeli who was born in Turkey. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I was born in Istanbul in 1984 to a Jewish family. I grew up in a Zionist and conservative family. From the time I was a small child, I was sent to synagogue to learn about Judaism and to study Torah. I also would like to underline that I come from a secular family. We were not strictly religious. We would make kiddush on Friday night with the television remote control in one hand and the cup of wine in the other. It may seem illogical to some, but that’s how I grew up.

That being said, we were very conscious of Judaism. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity. The first flag I ever held in my hand was an Israeli flag that my mother brought me from Israel. And Judaism—its symbols, the Israeli flag, etc.—were very much present in my home in Istanbul. After finishing primary school, I enrolled in a Jewish high school and then decided to make aliyah to Israel. But unfortunately in 2002, because of the security situation in Israel, my parents decided not to send me to Israel. So I completed my BA degree in Istanbul. After that I came to Israel and continued my studies and pursued a doctorate.

My dissertation was about how the textbooks in Turkish schools have been used to indoctrinate children in Atatürkism, which is the dominant ideology of modern Turkey. It will be published this year by Rowman & Littlefield’s Lexington Books.

Andrew Koss:

I want to ask two follow-up questions before we turn to contemporary policy issues. First, I’m very interested in the origin of your last name. I know many Jews in Turkey have last names that come from Spanish or Arabic. But what are the origins of Yanarocak?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

In 1934, the Turks instituted the surname law. Previously, for instance, since my father’s name was David, I would be called Hay, the son of David. But Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, instituted a new system whereby ever citizen must have a surname. There was also a “Turkification” policy, which involved encouraging Jews to adopt Turkish surnames. My grandfather’s father, whose name was Hayim Kohen, was at the time living in Ankara, which was already the capital city but still a small village. When he went to the Ministry of the Interior to register his name as Kohen, they told him that four people had already taken the name and he had to choose something else. And it had to be something in the Turkish language.

So he requested that his first name be Hayim Kohen, and that his last name be Yanarocak, which means the endless family—a family that will continue from generation to generation. It’s a very nice meaning. It’s an old Turkish saying; the word ocak in old Turkish means family. But if you open a modern Turkish dictionary, the first meaning will be “stove,” so many people mistakenly think that it means something like “burning stove.” But the Yanarocak name refers to a family that has an eternal flame in its home, an everlasting family.

In 2006, after finishing my BA degree, when I made aliyah, I was very enthusiastic about Zionism. And I thought. “I’m going to get my name Kohen back and get rid of Yanarocak, because it’s a Turkish name.” Then I was told that I would need to obtain special documentations from the chief rabbi of Istanbul, to prove that I am a kohen [i.e., a member of the Jewish priestly caste]. But I was also advised that unless I keep Yanarocak, I might have various bureaucratic problems if I travel to Turkey. So I kept Yanarocak. That’s how my name became so gigantic.

But now I see this result as a very positive thing, since we have many Cohens in the world.

If you’ll allow me, I also would like to provide you some information regarding my first name. In accordance with Turkish Jewish tradition, I was named after my maternal grandfather, Hayim. My name, Hay, is a bit like “Hayim junior.” And my mother loved the name Eytan, [which means “strong”]. She saw in her dreams that I will be a strong guy. That’s her claim; not mine. So my name became Hay Eytan.

Andrew Koss:

I am so glad I gave in to my impulses and asked about this, because it reveals a lot about Turkish history, and the history of Turkish Jewry. You’ve also touched on some issues that are very relevant to the discussion we’re about to have about Turkish foreign policy, and the country’s future. I just want to remind our readers that what’s now Turkey used to be the Ottoman empire, which was a multinational, multiethnic empire with no real dominant nationality. And if you were Jewish, you probably spoke Ladino, which is a kind of Spanish, and if you were Christian, you might have spoken Greek or Armenian. You could have been a Kurd, etc.

After the Ottoman empire falls, along comes Atatürk, who tries to create a national identity that’s more like being French or German—where regardless of your religion, you speak Turkish. In some ways, your story—of having a Hebrew last name replaced with a Turkish one—is very much the story of modern Turkey. At the end of this conversation, we’re going to come back to some of these themes, because I think they say a lot about the changes Turkey is now going through. But let me ask one more question about your childhood: did you grow up speaking Turkish at home?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Yes. I learned English and Hebrew later. In my Jewish high school, I studied both languages. I was always exposed to Ladino. My grandparents spoke Ladino and my parents were in a band that produced Ladino songs. I’m very familiar with the language, and I can tell you that when I’m in Spain I can understand almost everything. Still, I don’t really consider myself a Ladino speaker, even if I understand the language fairly well.

When I was young, I saw Ladino as something very weird, because the sovereign state of the Jews, Israel, has a different language. And in Spain today, people speak modern Spanish, which is different from Ladino. I used to ask my parents, “For God’s sake, why are we still trying to still speak the language of those who expelled us, who exiled us from Spain? Why are we so much in love with our oppressors?” I thought this was a very wise question, a very Zionistic question, a very self-aware question. But today, I’m thirty-eight-years old, and in retrospect, I consider myself a fool for not learning that language in a proper way. Maybe in the future I’ll learn this language again and fix what I did wrong in the past.

Andrew Koss:

This is very much the same story that many American Jews of the baby-boomer generation and the generation before would tell about Yiddish, including their changing attitudes towards it.

What about French? Did you have to learn French as a child?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

No, but my grandparents spoke French. When I compare myself with my grandparents, I can only be proud of the fact that I speak Hebrew and they didn’t. But they spoke Greek, Italian, French, Turkish, and Spanish.

Andrew Koss:

I could talk about this all day, but I think we better get to some of the policy issues. You’ve written a fascinating essay titled “Can a Renewed Alliance between Israel and Turkey Stabilize the Middle East?” In it, you get into what I find to be one of the most confusing debates in the Middle East today. When it comes to most of the big questions about the region, I feel that I have a sense of what the general direction of U.S. and Israeli policy should be, even if I’m no expert on the details.

But before I read your essay, I was totally confounded by Turkey. Here you’ve taken a compromise position. I’ll try to summarize it. A truly complete and healthy normalization between Israel and Turkey, a real alliance between the countries, is not possible so long as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president, is in power. But that doesn’t mean that Israel can’t take steps to improve its relations with Turkey, to make things better, or less bad, hoping that one day Turkey and Israel will be friends again. Is that a fair summary?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Let me make some fine tunings, if you’ll allow me. We should not be naïve when we look at Israel-Turkey relations. We cannot reset Erdoğan like he’s a computer. We cannot reprogram him. We cannot redesign him. We’ve had several years to get to know him, and we know what he’s like. The recent steps toward normalization [with Israel] shouldn’t lead us to forget the things he’s said previously about the Jewish state.

At the same time, he’s shown time and again that he’s very pragmatic and that he’s capable of changing his own policy for his immediate interests. Today, Turkish interests dictate that Erdoğan reconcile with Israel, and that’s what he’s doing. It doesn’t mean that he’s doing it because he really believes in his heart that it’s right.

Israel can and should move forward with this normalization. If we have an ambassador in Ankara, and if they have an ambassador here in Tel Aviv—I wish they could send their ambassador to Jerusalem, but that’s another issue—it’s a great step, but it’s incomplete. We still see that the Turks are hosting Hamas. In my opinion, to have a genuine normalization requires that they cease to do things like that. I would expect Turkey to put an end to this intimate relationship between itself and Hamas. And only after that can a trust-building atmosphere be formed. Only then can we speak about more ambitious projects.

The Turks would like to talk about energy projects, natural gas-pipeline projects. But during the last decade, ironically, Turkey became the architect of the trilateral alliance joining Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. Because of this new power alliance [with Turkey’s traditional enemies], we cannot sacrifice Israel’s national interests for a fragile normalization with Turkey. At the same time, the Cypriots and the Greeks should also understand that we are not improving our relations with them at the expense of the Turks. Israel is capable of having proper relations with Greece and Cyprus and also with Turkey at the same time. I think all of the sides in the eastern Mediterranean should internalize this bitter fact.

If Israel would like to export its eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe, it can’t do it without Turkey, and it can’t do it without Greece and Cyprus. Only if we can bring all four of these states together—I know that today it sounds like science fiction—and have them jointly issue licenses to multinational companies together can this be done. These countries will have to set aside sovereignty issues and instead focus solely on this natural-gas bounty. Such a situation could also provide an out-of-the-the box solution for various other conflicts.

Today, people may accuse me of wishful thinking when I talk about this. They may think the idea of cooperation among these four countries sounds fantastical, but only five years ago the Abraham Accords also sounded fantastical. Believe me, the Arab-Israeli conflict is much more complicated than the Turkish-Greek conflict. In Cyprus, there is no city called Jerusalem. The prophet Mohammad was not there. Jesus was not there. Moses was not there.

We don’t see the Turks or the Greeks digging tunnels to kill each other on a day-to-day basis. They’re not kidnapping people. They are not launching rockets at each other. On a daily basis, we do not see any violence in the island or on the border between Greece and Turkey. So it is far easier to find a solution there in my opinion. The Turkish-Greek conflict is a historic rivalry, but I don’t think finding a way to cooperate around natural gas is mission impossible.

Andrew Koss:

Regarding this point about the gas, I want give our readers some background. As you mentioned, Greece and Turkey have a conflict that goes back centuries. Part of that involves a dispute over Cyprus. Can you just explain that briefly?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Historically speaking, the island’s population was Greek. Later many different civilizations controlled the island. The Turkish presence dates back to the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in 1571; the Ottomans ruled the island until 1878. Only after that did the British come. Now it is the independent Republic of Cyprus. The population there is approximately 80 percent Greek and 20 percent Turkish.

Andrew Koss:

Thank you. That’s fascinating. Let’s now fast-forward to the present. Israel and Cyprus have both discovered, in their waters, huge natural-gas reserves. The plan has been for an EastMed Pipeline that will involve Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, which will get the gas out of Israeli and Cypriot waters, pipe it through Greece, and from there to Italy and from Italy to the rest of Europe. Turkey does not like this idea, as you explain.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Turkey claims that the planned pipeline would run through its maritime exclusive economic zone. Israel and Cyprus signed a maritime delimitation agreement between themselves, fixing their maritime borders and respective exclusive economic zones. The problem it that, according to international law, Turkey has been considered an occupying force on the island of Cyprus since 1974.

But at the same time, the Turks cite another principle of international law [that states that] if you find a natural resource near an island, it belongs to the whole island, which means that if you find natural gas in the southern part of the island, you also need to give some shares to the northern part of the island. Turkey of course claims part of the island, and has a presence there, so it claims a share of the natural resources. The Greeks say this law doesn’t apply, because the Turks are illegal occupiers there.

Thus natural gas has been enmeshed in a conflict that dates back to 1974. Each side wants to implement the articles of international law that favors it. The Turks ignore the occupation and claim their shares; the Greeks focus on the occupation and refuse to provide shares to the Turks.

Israel does not want to take part in this conflict. We do not want to defend the Greek Cypriots against the Turks. We have enough enemies. I don’t think that we’re going to make such a move. From an Israeli perspective, if we want the natural gas to be extracted we have no choice but to collaborate [with Turkey], or we will not have a pipeline. Instead, we will proceed with a plan to export liquified natural gas together with Egypt.

If Israel wants this pipeline, I do not see a feasible scenario that doesn’t involve cooperation with Turkey. That is what I wrote in my article. I agree that it’s very complicated under current circumstances, given the rift between the Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis and the Turkish President Erdoğan. I’m not blind. But still, I believe that common sense [suggests] this is the only way. Otherwise, it will not happen.

Andrew Koss:

Okay. So let me read to you what Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute wrote in response to your essay about the pipeline. This was published in Mosaic [on June 28]. I want to know if you agree.

. . . it helps to realize that, as a practical commercial venture, the undersea pipeline from Israel to Greece via Cyprus had always been something of a fantasy. No energy company would ever have invested in the project; it would simply have been too costly. The Greeks advanced it less as a serious commercial venture than as a tool for mobilizing international support for its maritime claims against Turkey. That’s not to say that a pipeline bringing Israeli gas to Europe via Greece and Italy isn’t economically viable—but that it can only be made so if it first goes from Israel’s fields directly to Turkey, which is much closer.

What do you think?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I think I have to take the liberty of providing you with a partial answer. I understand his position, and I would not characterize it as illogical. But at the same time, because of this lack of mutual trust between Israel and Turkey, laying this pipeline from Israel to Turkey will create an interdependency in favor of Turkey. In the event of a future escalation in the Gaza Strip or in Lebanon, we don’t know whether Erdoğan will close the taps [to punish Israel]. In my opinion, when I speak about collaboration among the four countries, I’m still myself not 100-percent persuaded that the pipeline should go through mainland Turkey. I think Turkey should be included in the project within the current route of the eastern Mediterranean pipeline, without letting Turkey be in a position where it can close the taps.

I’m not an engineer. I cannot tell you exactly what’s feasible or not in terms of engineering, but let’s assume that it is feasible. It might be more costly, but let’s say that it is feasible in terms of engineering. If I were the Israeli prime minister, I would choose the current route, through Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, and then to Italy, while getting the consent of the Turks, without giving Turkey the leverage of closing the taps.

Andrew Koss:

Thank you. I’m going to switch gears now. After you wrote this essay we asked two of the smartest people in America writing about the Middle East, Jonathan Schanzer and Michael Doran, to respond. These are people who more or less are on the same side of the political spectrum, if you want to think about foreign policy that way. They both start out by saying how much they like your essay and that they agree with you. I don’t think they were just being polite. But they both go on to say diametrically opposite things.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Fair enough. It’s a legitimate response.

Andrew Koss:

It’s legitimate, but it’s fascinating that we have this gigantic disagreement between two people who each agree with you. Rather than tackle their disagreements all at once, I want to focus on something very specific. On Wednesday June 22, the Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid was visiting Turkey, and announced that there was a terrorist plot that had been foiled by Turkish security services. It seems that Israeli intelligence tipped them off. If so, this is a case of security collaboration along the lines of what existed in the 1990s. And it’s cooperation against Iran, which is Israel’s great regional nemesis, and in my opinion is also America’s greatest nemesis in the Middle East. Perhaps it’s Turkey’s as well.

Michael Doran looks at this and says, “This is great security cooperation. There is a common threat in Iran and these two countries are working together to stop it.” Jonathan Schanzer says, “The fact that Iranian agents are working in Turkey is a symptom of the permissive attitude that the Turkish government has had toward the Islamic Republic’s shenanigans.” Doran says the plot was foiled, and that should go in the plus column for Israel-Turkish relations. Schanzer says the plot was foiled, thank God, but this goes in the minus column. What do you think?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Again, I think I will be the person who finds the middle ground. First of all, we should understand why the Iranians are operating inside Turkey. Many Iranians who ran away from the Iranian regime—dissidents, members of the opposition—are turning Turkey into their own headquarters against the Iranian regime. Thus the vast majority of Iranian intelligence activities inside Turkey are geared toward hunting down Iranian dissidents. But in the meantime, during the 1990s, Iran also conducted some assassinations against Turkish secular intellectuals.

I assume that these Iranian cells are already operating in Turkey, and their mission there isn’t connected to Israel. But then they were given a new mission: to kill Israelis. Moreover, I think Iran sought to punish Turkey for its normalization with Israel. By killing Israelis on Turkish soil, Iran could damage Turkey’s reputation as a tourist destination, which is crucial to Turkey’s economy. So these Iranian attacks were aimed at Turkey as well as at Israel.

But that’s not the whole story, which is much more complicated. Iran has another incentive for trying to undermine Turkey, namely that Turkey has begun challenging Iran in multiple theaters. Recently, Erdoğan declared that he intends to launch a military operation into the Tell Rifaat and Manbij enclaves of Syria, targeting Kurdish PKK/YPG forces as well as Assad’s forces. There are also Shiite civilians in these enclaves.

Since Iran supports Assad, this offensive would challenge the Iranian presence in Syria. Meanwhile Turkey is challenging Hashd al-Sha’abi, the Shiite militias in northern Iraq, who have launched rocket attacks against the Turkish armed forces in northern Iraq and targeted the Turkey’s Bashiqa military base. They killed a Turkish soldier. And let us not forget the Turkish involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh during the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan war. Tehran is extremely disturbed by growing Turkish penetration in the region. It seeks to strengthen Armenia against Azerbaijan, and Turkey is doing the exact opposite.

So when we look at the complete picture, we can understand that the two countries are already at odds. Besides that, let us also not forget that Turkey is building dams on the Tigris and the Aras Rivers, which would decrease the water flow to Iran dramatically. Iran’s water situation is not very good to begin with. Taking all this into consideration, we cannot say that Iran’s choice of Turkey was a coincidence. Iran wanted to punish Turkey, and Israel was a great excuse to do so. Here I think we should not see this as Mr. Schanzer does. I don’t think Turkey turned a blind eye. It’s not easy to locate these Iranian cells.

Remember also: Turkey and Iran have a common border. Nationals from one country can visit the other without a visa. They share the same religion. They look similar. Iran is the fourth-largest source of tourists to Turkey—after Russia, Ukraine, and Germany. It’s very common to see Iranian people in the streets of Istanbul and of other cities. Thus it’s not that easy for Turkish counterintelligence to detect and dismantle Iranian terrorist cells. Doing so is very complicated.

Frankly, I do not think that Turkey is turning a blind eye against such acts. I’ll give you a concrete example: in October, Turkey conducted an operation against agents of Iranian intelligence in the city of Van. That is why I’m not inclined to agree with Dr. Schanzer about this particular question.

But I’d like to turn to the larger points Doran makes about the possibilities of Israel-Turkish rapprochement. I would like to be as optimistic as he is, but only time will tell if he is right. Like him, I see this current cooperation between the two intelligence agencies as something fantastic. Nobody could be happier than I am to see it. I was born in Turkey and live in Israel. I’m a citizen of both countries.

But again, I’m also a rational person, and I try to be an objective analyst. I think we need to be very cautious. I want to see this trend to continue, not over weeks, not over months, but over years, and that’s the only way it can prove itself. If Israel and Turkey can work together and can notify each other about challenges and threats, that would be evidence of healthy cooperation. And then I think that Dr. Doran will be proved right. But at the moment I’m cautious. I’m skeptical. Even if I want him to be right.

Andrew Koss:

I just read about an hour ago that Israel has lowered the threat level for Israelis traveling in Turkey. It used to be at “high,” and now it’s down to “medium” in response to the successful Turkish operation against the Iranian terrorist cells. But I also want to remind us that just a few months ago, there was an Israeli couple, a husband and wife, traveling in Turkey on vacation who were arrested on charges of being Mossad spies. I think you and I are both certain that they were not Mossad spies.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

[The charges were] absurd. This couple, the Oknins, visited an observatory tower. Why do you build an observatory tower? So that the people can go upstairs and can take pictures. So they went to the top of the tower and took pictures of Mr. Erdoğan’s private home, which is in a closed neighborhood called Üsküdar, and they used their photography software to draw a circle around his home. And then they sent the picture to their family in Israel through WhatsApp. What an incredible way of transmitting top-secret intelligence information!

To understand this particular incident, it’s necessary to go back to the so-called Mossad crisis last October. At the time, the Turkish intelligence agency announced that it had arrested Mossad agents. But it later became clear that these so-called Mossad agents were Syrians and Palestinians.

My assumption is that they worked for the Palestinian Authority. And most probably they had shared intelligence with the Mossad. But nothing more than that. The Turks arrested this cell and wanted to receive some sort of explanation from Israel. Israel, naturally, refused to acknowledge any connection with the arrestees. It’s my guess that these Israeli tourists caught the attention of local policemen or authorities who naïvely thought that they might be spies; their superiors then used the incident to pressure Israel to provide explanations about the people the Turks arrested in October. And I have evidence for my conjecture: to get the Israeli couple released, the Mossad chief, David Barnea, had to fly to Turkey personally. 

I gather from this that the Turks wanted some explanations, and David Barnea provided them. The result was that the two countries solved some of their problems. And now we see a very positive atmosphere, stemming from this security collaboration. In this way, the Oknin affair, bad as it was, ended up having positive effects. This cooperation bore fruit in the Iranian case. And we now see a more upgraded version of a collaboration.

Speaking more broadly about the safety issues for Israeli tourists: the Turkish people are known with their hospitality. And if we have to generalize, then I can tell you that the vast majority of Turkish people would welcome Israelis as their guests. Most Israeli tourists in Turkey won’t find that being Israeli causes problems.

But I’m not naïve. Whenever there is friction between Israel and the Palestinians, there is a very sudden turn in Turkish public opinion. During peacetime, there’s not much hostility among ordinary Turks. But if there’s a military operation in Gaza, Lebanon, or somewhere else, it could create problems for Israeli tourists. So we have to be cautious.

Andrew Koss:

Moving along, I want to press you on another topic, also connected to Iran, that I think Jonathan Schanzer would bring up if he were here. The U.S. has for many years had sanctions on Iran, and there have been accusations of smuggling and sanctions-evasion being directed through Turkey. There was a major legal case here in the U.S. a couple years ago involving Turkish banks that were involved in helping Iran skirt sanctions. Turkey appears to be allowing this within its borders. What do you think about that sort of reasoning?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I understand this point of view. But we also have to understand these incidents in context, and try to see them from a Turkish perspective.

America is very far away. Iran is Turkey’s neighbor. Iran is not going anywhere. A deterioration in relations between Turkey and Iran could have very severe consequences for Turkish national security. Moreover, the Turks and the Iranians have not been engaged in conventional warfare with one another since 1639. The two sides are very proud that they drew a bilateral border between their countries themselves; it wasn’t done by an Englishman or a Frenchman. This peace agreement—called the Treaty of Kasr-i Sirin in Turkish or the Treaty of Zuhab in Persian—has an almost sacred status in the eyes of both nations.

Of course, there is still rivalry between Turkey and Iran, which can be seen in different theaters, as we already discussed: in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Syria, and in Iraq. But the Turkish-Iranian border is sacrosanct. Nobody wants to touch it. The Iranians know it’s not in their interest to upset the border, and the Turks know its not in theirs. Both sides want to continue bilateral trade. And trade over that border is critical to the Turkish economy. And, as I mentioned, there are many Iranians who visit Turkey as tourists. If there are sanctions against Iran, there will be no prosperity in Iran, and then Iranian tourists will not be able to come to Turkey to spend their dollars. Thus it’s in Turkey’s interest to see a prosperous Iran, rather than one sanctioned by the U.S.

Moreover, despite the sectarian difference [between Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran], the two countries are also joined by a sense of Islamic solidarity. I remember, as if it was yesterday, when the U.S. soccer team had to play against the Iranian national team at the World Cup. Maybe you remember?

Andrew Koss:

I don’t remember anything having to do with soccer.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

This is crucial. I spoke with many Turks at the time, and although they seemed very modern, they told me that they wanted the Iranian national team to win the game for two reasons. First, because it was the underdog. And second, because they were Muslims. We can’t ignore the fact that Iran is a Muslim country, while the U.S. is not.

On top of all that, the Turks have watched the U.S. provide arms to the Kurdish militias in Syria, the PKK/YPG. And this has made them very skeptical about their alliance with the United States. And I completely understand the American perspective. I don’t want to opine about what the U.S. should do, only to give the Turkish perspective.

To sum up: Iran is crucial for Turkey culturally, geographically, and historically. And Turks believe that, at the end of the day, the United States will go home, which is very far away from the region, but the Turks have to sleep next door to their Iranian neighbors. Turkey has to be careful about upsetting Iran.

Andrew Koss:

So let’s step back. In my view, you can divide the Middle East in two. On the one side, are Iran, Hizballah in Lebanon, Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen. Iraq too is very close to being pulled into this ever-expanding Iranian sphere of influence. On the other side, are the United Arab of Emirates, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

And you want to ask me which side Turkey is on.

Andrew Koss:

Based on what you’ve said, it seems that Turkey is a natural partner for the anti-Iran axis, but it’s always going to be a reluctant partner. It’s never going to want to go all the way. Is that fair?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Yes. One of the most important pieces of evidence for this can be found in the Turkish press. The Iranian foreign minister and the Turkish foreign minister met with each other [on June 27]. You can see the pictures of them smiling at the cameras—despite Turkey’s thwarting Iranian terror attacks the week before. This is the best proof of the flexibility of Turkish-Iranian relations: that these two countries simply continue with business as usual.

Turkey is very much aware that Iranian plots on its own soil against Israeli tourists constitute a challenge to its sovereignty. I wish we could have been flies on the wall when the two foreign ministers met, and find out what they said to one another. We can’t know what was said. But we do know that after that meeting, they were still capable of posing for the cameras and smiling.

We can think of them as playing chess. Let us not forget that chess was invented in Iran. Turkey says to the Iranians, “I saw your move and I got your pawn.” Maybe they were only able to see the Iranian move thanks to the Israelis, but I want to focus on the bottom line. This chess game will continue. Their children will take over where their parents left off. But nobody’s going to turn over the table and send the pieces flying.

This is very important to understand when looking at Turkish-Iranian relations. And that is why I do not think that Turkey will become a part of an overtly anti-Iranian military alliance. It could be a partner in various diplomatic initiatives, but it has no interest in turning Iran into an active enemy.

Andrew Koss:

Michael Doran, a longtime Mosaic contributor, used his response to criticize what he calls the “neo-Ottoman hypothesis,” which says that Erdoğan is best understood as aspiring to recreate the Ottoman empire. What do you think about this hypothesis?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I don’t think it’s a hypothesis. I think it’s very real. And if today [Erdoğan’s Ottomanist ambitions appear to be fading], it’s because of the devaluation of the Turkish lira. If there were still a strong Turkish economy, I’m very skeptical that we would now being seeing this reconciliation with the Gulf states and with Israel. I respect [Doran] very much, but I totally disagree with him in this regard.

Andrew Koss:

Fascinating. And then there are two other claims made by Erdoğan’s critics: that he’s and Islamist and that he’s an anti-Semite. Take those one at a time.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Okay. We all know that he’s an Islamist. But I think that his approach to Jews is more complicated. I would like to try to explain.

In his ideal world, I think Erdoğan would like to see Jews under the control of Muslims, meaning submissive Jews. He is content with the Jew who recognizes the superiority of Islam, and who is protected according to the Medina constitution, [which gives special tolerated status to Jews and other “people of the Book”]. But I think he has a problem with Jews having sovereignty, and a state of their own.

Andrew Koss:

I also want to raise the question of Islamic State. I’ve read in various places that Turkey has on occasion allowed Islamic State elements to take temporary refuge or to resupply behind its borders. I’ve even read that Turkey has occasionally helped Islamic State in small ways, even if it doesn’t take a favorable attitude toward IS overall. Is there any truth to any of this?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

There were many accusations like that. There were some documents revealed by Wikileaks supporting some of these claims. Even if there is truth to these accusations, I think the Turks were using IS as a tool, but at I don’t think they supported IS ideologically. Islamic State was fighting Kurdish militias affiliated with the PKK/YPG, [one of Turkey’s bitterest enemies]. And if an entity is willing to kill your enemy, you wish him success. I would assume this sort of thinking shaped Turkey’s actions vis-a-viz Islamic State. If they’re fighting against the Kurds, let them fight. And if they can provide us cheaper oil, let them provide. But that doesn’t mean Turkey loves Islamic State, or supports it. From Ankara’s perspective, if Kurds are killing the jihadists, fine. If these jihadists are killing the Kurds, it’s also fine. It’s a win-win situation for Ankara.

That was Ankara’s initial attitude. But when IS began to carry out terrorist acts inside Turkey, then Turkey had to adopt a clear stance against IS. And that’s why Turkey conducted a military operation in the city of al-Bab, for instance, in northern Syria, that was directed against IS. And let us also not forget that Islamic State burnt two Turkish soldiers alive.

Andrew Koss:

Staying on the subject of Turkey’s relationships to Islam and Islamism: one narrative about Erdoğan I’ve encountered is that he wants Turkey to become a Muslim country again. That he wants to reject the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the so-called father of modern Turkey, who decided to secularize the country and who got women to stop wearing the hijab and in general tried to separate Turkishness from Islam. Is Turkey still Atatürk’s Turkey?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

No.

Andrew Koss:

Was it Atatürk’s Turkey when you were growing up?

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I think Turkey has gone through many different changes, especially the 1980 military coup, which sought to marry Islam to secularism and to reconcile the Atatürk’s legacy with Islam. But this was a tamed version of Islam, under the control and the supervision of the state. When I was a little kid, there was a tremendous emphasis on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as an individual, on his personality, but his vision might already have been eroding. If his vision has been fully realized, then we would not have seen the penetration of religion to such an extent. Instead, the generals [who carried out the 1980 coup] saw a need to modify secular Kemalism.

To put this in context: during the 1970s, Turkish society was deeply fragmented between rightists and leftists. And the generals understood that Kemalism—secular Turkish nationalism—without religion was unable to be the glue that held the nation together. So they concluded that they needed Islam to be this glue that could unite the nation. They tried to combine Islam and Kemalism, and created a new product which they dubbed Atatürkism.

Andrew Koss:

Just to clarify for our readers: Atatürk and Mustafa Kemal are the same person. Atatürk was a name he took later in life, meaning “Father of the Turks.”

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

Yes. This was really just rebranding. It’s like saying, “Don’t buy, Coca-Cola, buy Moca-Cola.” You’ve modified the old product and given it a new name. The whole education system was redesigned to reflect this synthesis of Islam and secular nationalism, which became the core of Atatürkism. And these changes paved the way for a more conservative Turkey. With the benefit of hindsight, it should not surprise us to see the rise of Erdoğan, which was a product of this newly conservative atmosphere. There was fertile ground on which his movement was able to grow.

What is the Turkish-Islam synthesis? It is the view that Turkish national identity is inseparable from Islam. Accordingly, Hay, even if he is Turkish citizen, cannot become a real Turk, [because he is a Jew]. Even if he declares himself to be a Turk, he could never be elected as the country’s president because he’s not a Muslim. And even if he were to convert to Islam, he and his descendants will always be considered converts [as opposed to a “real” Turkish Muslims]. How do we know? Because the Turkish registry records not only your religion, but whether you have converted, and that determines whether you can get [security] clearance. Even if you are a third-generation Muslim, and you consider yourself a Muslim and a Turk, but you have an Armenian grandma, you will not be able to go to join the Turkish intelligence agency.

I can tell you that my childhood was very different from my mother’s. My childhood was much more Islamized than hers. And today Turkey is much more Islamized than it was during my childhood, let alone my mother’s. There has been a gradual process of Islamization. Turkey isn’t the same country it was a few decades ago. And one day, because he’s a human being, Erdoğan won’t be there anymore, but it won’t go back to being the Turkey of my childhood. You cannot reset Turkey because Turkey is not a computer. It’s a human thing. Just as we cannot reset Erdoğan, we will not be able to reset Turkey.

Andrew Koss:

Before we conclude, I want to give you an opportunity to add anything you’d like about the two responses to your essay, or to bring up anything that especially struck you.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I think that Dr. Doran is very, very optimistic. And if I’m not mistaken, I understand that he also wants to see the U.S. remain an important player in the region, and to strengthen relations between Washington and Ankara. I agree with him on that. But I’m also very disappointed about recent U.S. foreign vis-à-vis the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. I’m a person who thinks in terms of Realpolitik. For me, my allies do not have to adopt the democratic values I believe in. And I think this ideological based U.S. foreign policy, which is now associated with the U.S. Democratic party, is damaging to American national interests. You cannot educate other people with this ethnocentric way of thinking. You will not be able to dictate your democratic values to Saudi Arabia or to the United Arab Emirates. The people of these countries have their own governments and their own culture and their own religion.

The attitude [of wanting to pressure other countries into democratization] in my opinion is very arrogant. I don’t think it helps the United States. So far as democracy is concerned, I think the U.S. should imitate Judaism. We [Jews] do not try to Judaize other peoples. If someone would like to become Jewish, we will welcome them and help them go through a process to become Jewish. But we do not try to attract people and encourage them to become Jewish. I think this is the way the U.S. should behave. Otherwise, unfortunately, it is seen as acting very arrogantly in trying to impose its own values on other regions.

I like to focus solely on immediate national interests. I’m a pragmatic person. I look at the bottom line.

When I was in primary school, our math teacher would give us partial credit for thinking logically about a problem, even if we didn’t get the right answer. But unfortunately life is not like that. Life is more like a soccer game. Your team can play outstandingly for the first 90 minutes. All the spectators will admire you. But at the last minute, the other team scores a goal and you lose the game one-nil. Sixty years later, a historian who wants to know what happened on that particular day will only see the result of that game, that you lost one-nil, and he or she will have no clue that you played so well. Unfortunately, life is about the bottom line. This isn’t true of our personal relationships. But unfortunately, in the relations among states, we have to focus on the bottom line.

If the bottom line serves my interests—even if it’s not reached in a way I like—for me, it’s kosher. And this is especially the way it works in the Middle East: if you are not strong, you will be obliterated. There is no mercy in this neighborhood. Maybe it’s different in Europe, but look at Ukraine.

Andrew Koss:

Yes.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I believe in democracy, but for me, it’s not a precondition for having a proper relationship with a country like Saudi Arabia.

Andrew Koss:

Yes. I think we can end with a quote from the Talmud. Ha-kol nidon aḥar ha-sof. Everything is judged by the way it ends.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak:

I wish it were otherwise, but it’s true. I wish that an idealistic worldview could prevail, but it doesn’t. And that is why we have to be strong.

Andrew Koss:

That’s a good place for us to end. Thank you very much.

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More about: Iran, Israel & Zionism, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey