Israel-Turkey: Towards a new rapprochement?

Despite crucial differences, Israel and Turkey might be eager to establish again diplomatic relations in the face of a common threat

In an article published by the Turkish weekly e-magazine Halimiz, Roey Gilad, the chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of Israel in Turkey, reaffirms the need for Israel and Turkey to establish again normal relations.

The Israeli diplomat underlines the importance of such an action by taking into consideration the common interests between the two countries in two affairs: Syria and COVID-19. On one hand, Israel and Turkey are facing a mutual security threat in the Syrian battleground, which is Iran and its proxies. On the other hand, Gilad argues that Tel-Aviv and Ankara have to work together in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, given that their capabilities and safety as destinations are competent enough. Although he recognizes the political differences between them, the time has come to put them aside, for the time being, according to his view.

For a long time, Israel and Turkey enjoyed good bilateral relations, cooperating not only strategically, but also economically. Both Israel and Turkey were considered to be among the greatest strategic partners of the West, and especially the USA, in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. However, the deterioration was inevitable under the circumstances surrounding the Turkish leadership and its Islamist ties. But maybe, this situation is not bound to last forever.

A “western” front

During the turbulent Cold War era, Israel and Turkey relations were seemingly awkward. Turkey recognized Israel and formed official diplomatic ties in 1949. Nevertheless, the Muslim-majority country proceeded cautiously. In several issues, in which the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most prominent one, Turkey never supported Israel openly. But Turkey neither followed the strong Israeli condemnation path, at least the way other Arab states have done so. Ankara went only as far as to downgrade its diplomatic relations with Tel-Aviv in 1980, due to the annexation of East Jerusalem.

The post-Cold War environment, on the contrary, allowed them to form a concrete strategic partnership under the western umbrella. For the West, the two secular countries were significantly reliable allies in the region. For Turkey, Israel was important in forming regional alliances to counter Syria’s hostility (support of PKK terrorists). For Israel, Turkey shared with them common regional perspectives, especially upon the Iranian and Syrian practices.

Under the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, as well as based on a wider western understanding and communication, Israel and Turkey were brought together strategically. This form of cooperation included mainly a military focus between the two actors, as Turkey aimed to modernize its forces and Israel to expand its weapons market. The benefits of such an evolution were obvious for both sides.

But the bilateral relations did not begin and end there. Israeli-Turkish cooperation developed further into numerous fields, including trade, tourism, culture and disaster relief. This secondary-level cooperation never faded, even after the following crisis that unfolded. The partnership between Israel and Turkey was somewhat deeply established by creating interdependence norms that were not questioned by them. Yet, this was not enough to prevent the clash of strategic interests that emerged during the last two decades.

What went wrong?

Undeniably, Turkey has been transformed, both internally and externally, after the rise of AKP in power. Erdogan’s engagement to regional and strategic matters focused on enhancing Turkey’s influence through Neo-Ottomanist and Islamist agendas. This resulted in a more aggressive approach towards the Palestinian cause. At the same time, Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister that began in 2009, established a more adamant Israeli stance on security issues.

The biggest rift in the Israeli-Turkish relations came after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. Israel imposed an embargo on Gaza Strip after the 2008-09 Gaza War. A Turkish humanitarian organization of Islamist background, the IHH, contributed with the ship Mavi Marmara into the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” that sought to break the embargo. Israeli commandos attacked the ship, resulting in the deaths of ten Turkish citizens. This incident occurred after already established tensions between the two countries that followed the Gaza War.

Turkey downgraded again its diplomatic relations with Israel, while the Israeli ambassador in Turkey was withdrawn. It took six years for Israel and Turkey to sign a reconciliation agreement and restore official diplomatic ties. Between 2010 and 2016, the rivalry between them escalated even further at times when Turkey tried to hold Israel accountable in the international fora for the ongoing violence in Gaza.

The rapprochement period was not meant to last long though. In 2018, the USA recognized Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel after transferring its embassy from Tel-Aviv. The ambiguous move of the Trump administration erupted, once again, violence on the Gaza border that was confronted by the IDF. Erdogan labeled Israel as a “terrorist state”, while Netanyahu accused Erdogan of supporting Hamas. Turkey started to raise global awareness against the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel’s and Turkey’s official diplomatic relations were ripped apart for once more.

The new probable strategic cooperation

The developments in the Palestinian front continue to pose as a hindrance towards a new and lasting rapprochement. Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank (with Washington’s blessings) are pushing Turkey to oppose such actions, bringing them to the international foreground. However, views on Syria might be the catalyst again for new strategic cooperation.

Turkish involvement in the Idlib offensive is eager to add a completely new dimension to this equation. This perspective suggests that for Turkey to remain a major actor in Syria, Hezbollah, which acts as an Iranian proxy supporting Bashar Al-Assad, must be weakened. Turkey suffered a major blow in Syria in February 2020 by the pro-government forces. As long as Iran comes closer to Israel, either by Hezbollah in Lebanon or other Shia militias in Syria, Tel-Aviv will always stay on alert. In other words, the common enemy for Israel and Turkey now is the Iranian influence in Syria.

In April 2020, the coronavirus pandemic acted as a triggering event that brought the two countries together. Turkey offered medical assistance to Israel despite past tensions. The next evidence that suggests that a diplomatic restoration is possible came during early May. As Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France, and UAE condemned Turkey for its actions in the EEZ of Cyprus, Israel did not sponsor such a statement despite being part of the East Med Gas Forum. On the contrary, news on secret talks between Israeli and Turkish officials regarding a maritime agreement emerged. These developments were also supported by pro-Turkish media. Now, a discussion upon a new rapprochement is unfolding in the Israeli media also.

Indeed, the fact that Israel and Turkey have been kept on ice for too long is regrettable by both sides. Geostrategic realities may be difficult to overcome in the Eastern Mediterranean, but a renewed cooperation against Iranian influence in Syria is not far-fetched. At the same time, the USA might be happy with such a development.