A thaw in Israel-Turkey relations

“Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region, and we must accept that we need Israel too. This is a reality in the region” This is what Turkey’s President Erdogan has recently said. Such a strong statement by a notoriously anti-Israeli leader seems to hide an admission of the need to strengthen the relations with Jerusalem. Erdogan is pushing for the reconciliation that Israel was waiting for, to face those appalling threats ranging from the fight against Daesh, to the Iran nuclear deal.

To analyze the Turkish leader’s strategy, one should focus on three main aspects. First, the evolution of the relations between these key players over the years; secondly, Erdogan’s main objectives; thirdly, the Israeli reply, which has not arrived yet.

Relations between Turkey and Israel began in 1949.Turkey did not participate in any of the wars waged by the Arab coalitions against Israel and it was also one of the most feeble voices of the Muslim world about the Palestinian issue. Relations have become increasingly positive with Rabin in the 1990s, so much that in the same period was established the first Israeli embassy in Ankara and the first consulate in Istanbul. Unfortunately, at the outset of the 21st century, the relations started to crumble due to two main factors: the victory of the Justice and Development Party and the Freedom Flotilla incident.

Like any self-respecting leader of a Muslim state, Erdogan never stopped using an anti-Israeli rhetoric just to earn consensus within the country. Despite the anti-Zionist ascendancy, Erdogan maintained strategic relations with Israel in the early years of his mandate, strengthening an economic[1] and military cooperation (organizing frequently joint military operations, naval exercises and exchanges of weapons). In the spirit of this kind of good neighbor’s politics, the Turkish fleet was sent to Israel to defend the coasts from a possible missile attack which could be carried out by the Iraqi armed forces.

The situation radically changed with the growing wave of violence in Gaza, especially after the Operation Cast Lead. Turkey has openly sided not just with Palestinian, but also with Hamas. Since 2008/2009 onwards, Erdogan began to publicly blame Israel, openly accusing the UN of not applying the appropriate sanctions, calling it a terrorist state, and by appealing to the victims of the war against Gaza. In addition, during the same years, the arrival of indiscretions on Turkish loans toward Hamas froze relations also on the Israeli side. In addition to this the financial support and continuous supply of weapons to fight the “Israeli oppressor,” Turkey’s Erdogan began to welcome Hamas leaders such as Ismail Hanyeh and Khaled Meshaal, something unacceptable for the Israeli political forces. The Turkish public opinion has been instrumental in strengthening the country’s position against Israel. Demonstrations against the blockade of Gaza and against the Istanbul have cemented Erdogan’s position.” “Civilians and children are dying in Gaza,” – Erdogan said – “those who keep their silence over these attacks out of whatever concern or for whatever diplomatic reason, will pay the price before history. People say my statements are too harsh… They are no harsher than the phosphorus bombs used by Israel”.[2]

During the debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2013, Erdogan embarked on a vigorous debate with Shimon Perez, condemning the Israeli actions in Gaza. When the moderator then prevented the Turkish President (for reasons of time) from going on, the latter left the stage.

The 2010 is remembered as the year of the Freedom Flotilla incident, a violent confrontation between Israeli soldiers and pro-Palestinian activists on the Turkish ship named “Mavy Marmara.” In the light of the foregoing, Ankara decided to break the diplomatic relations with Israel, demanding three conditions for the normalization: Israel’s official apologies for the Turkish civilians who were killed in the Mavi Marmara incident, the financial compensation for the victims’ family members and the end of the embargo on the Strip.

Jerusalem has already fulfilled the first two requests,[3] but the third one, conceived as a matter of national security, could pave the way to a heavier transfer of weapons to Hamas in the Israeli line of reasoning. Notwithstanding the apologies of the Israeli Prime Minister and the compensation of twenty million dollars provided to the families of the victims, the Turkish Prime Minister continued to conduct anti-Israel policies and to define Zionism as a crime against humanity until this year.

“Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region. We have to admit that we also need Israel.” Why such a statement? While Erdogan used to say words like “savagery” and “a crime-against humanity” referring to the action conducted by Israel in Gaza against Hamas, Turkey has not established any kind of economic sanction against Israel. Although diplomatic relations remain tense, business is business. From the beginning of the crisis between the two countries, the volume of exports increased by 50%. The trade five years ago amounted to 2.6 billion dollars, rising today to 5.6 billion dollars.[4]

Furthermore the international scenario has changed in two years; Turkey has been facing new enemies, as well as the need to cut the excessive dependence on Russian gas due to the breakdown of Turkish-Russian relations. Turkey certainly needs an “alternative” energy pit, but it also needs an ally in the Mediterranean. Israel could mean both: the Israeli Leviathan is the greatest and the largest gas field in the Mediterranean region, the flow rate of the gas field is so high that it can replace most of the Russian gas supplies for the entire Turkey (622 million m³ of gas). Ankara seems to want to open a new kind of diplomatic gate with Jerusalem not only to import the Israeli gas, but also to export this resource in Europe with a strategic infrastructure that would start a competition with the Russian pipeline. Israel has certainly looked at this cautious reapprochement from another point of view. The key is not economic but strategic and one can see it in the alliance between Iran and Russia as much as in the supplies and military funding to Hezbollah. It is important to understand that if Israel feared the nuclearization of Iran, the fear grows day by day with an ally like Russia.

The advantages of a reopening of the Jerusalem-Ankara relations for Israel are multiple: an ally that could provide information about the development of the Iranian Nuclear Program and Hezbollah movements in Syria. Hezbollah consistently operates in Syria in favor of the al-Assad regime and, once again, Israel may have an enemy in common with the Turkish State. Anyway, after several meetings, the Israeli Senior Official affirmed that “Erdogan is on record as predicating the normalization of relations with Israel on a total lifting of the blockade on Gaza. There are ideas but no solutions to the topic yet. It’s not simple.”[5] In other words, we know that a real “document” about reconciliation exists, but it has no value because there are several conditions that Turkey probably does not want to considerate, such as the halt of the military wing to Hamas’s activities on Turkish territory, the expulsion of Hamas’s officials from Turkey and the annulment of any kind of legal sanctions against the IDF soldiers involved in the episode of the Mavi Marmara.

It seems that Turkey has only an interest in the stocks of Leviathan; this is why it would be actually too risky for Israel to trust an actor potentially unreliable. And not excessively motivated; against this backdrop, it will probably be difficult to establish diplomatic contact without clarity of purposes of both sides.

Rebecca Mieli

Master’s degree in International Relations (Roma Tre University)


[1] In 1996, Turkey and Israel signed a Free Trade Agreement. See: web.archive.org/web/20070222054329/http:/www.dtm.gov.tr/ab/ingilizce/sta/israil/israel.htm

[2] Rainsford, Sarah. “Turkey rallies to Gaza’s plight,” BBC, January 16, 2009. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7831496.stm

[3] Sidner, Sara, Watson, Ivan, and Sterling, Joe. “Israel to Turkey: We apologize for deadly raid on Gaza-bound flotilla,” CNN, March 24, 2016. edition.cnn.com/2013/03/22/world/meast/israel-turkey-apology/

[4] Ottaviani, Marta, “Turchia Israele: nemici in politica, amici in affari,” EastOnline, February, 10, 2015. www.eastonline.eu/it/opinioni/mediterraneo/turchia-e-israele-nemici-in-politica-amici-in-affari

[5] Ravid, Barak. “Five Years After Gaza Flotilla Raid, Israel and Turkey Reach Understandings on Ending Crisis,” Haaretz, December 17, 2015. www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.692478

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