Aug 30, 2022 | Amotz Asa-El
It took years to evolve, but the Turkish Government has decided to mend its relationship with Israel, after having previously steered that relationship away from warm friendship and toward open animosity.
Israeli-Turkish friendship harked back to the 1950s, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion secretly created the so-called “periphery alliance” linking Israel, Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia, all non-Arab countries that border the Arab world. After later losing Ethiopia to the Soviet bloc in the mid-1970s and Iran to Islamism in 1979, Israel and Turkey quietly became closer. By the 1990s, Ankara and Jerusalem developed an intimate alliance that included joint military exercises, large arms deals, and close intelligence cooperation, alongside frequent cultural exchanges and brisk trade – underscored by Turkey’s emergence as the most popular destination for Israeli holidaymakers.
All this ended in the aftermath of Turkey’s transition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long rule and increasingly Islamist orientation.
Though it took six more years to spin fully out of control, Erdogan’s verbal hostility emerged as early as 2004, hardly a year after his rise to power, when he likened Israel to the terror organisations it faced. Erdogan’s anti-Israeli vitriol then became habitual, most memorably in Davos, Switzerland, in 2009, when, sharing a stage with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, he accused Israel of “killing babies” before storming off the panel. On other occasions, Erdogan compared Israel to Nazi Germany.
As Erdogan’s grip on Turkey tightened steadily over the years, military cooperation with Israel rapidly declined, although diplomatic relations remained intact. That, too, ended, following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which six Turkish ships carrying hundreds of Islamist activists sailed toward Gaza with the declared intention of breaking the Egyptian-Israeli naval blockade of the strip.
The IDF’s raid on the flotilla in response resulted in a clash aboard the main vessel, the Mavi Marmara, between Israeli naval commandos and hundreds of Turks wielding metal bars, bats and knives. The clash ended with nine Turks dead and ten Israelis injured, two of them severely. Another casualty was diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Jewish state, which were reduced to the lowest level.
Initial efforts to reconcile Jerusalem and Ankara were led by Washington, which felt it could not afford disharmony between two of its most important and long-standing Middle Eastern allies. A breakthrough seemed to arrive during US President Barak Obama’s visit to Israel in 2013, when he mediated a phone conversation between Erdogan and then-Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s apology for the loss of lives during the flotilla incident ignited three years of negotiations that ended with an exchange of ambassadors following Israel’s payment, through a special fund, of US$20 million (A$28.6 million) intended for the families of the flotilla’s fatalities.
Yet what seemed like a path to reconciliation soon unravelled, as Erdogan first persisted with his verbal broadsides against Israel whenever Palestinian-Israeli violence flared, and then, in 2018, again expelled the Israeli ambassador.
Now reconciliation is again taking place, only this time Turkey has some strategic motivations it did not have in the past.
A change in the atmospherics coming out of Ankara first surfaced a year ago, when Erdogan called then newly-elected Israeli President Isaac Herzog to congratulate him. The gesture was followed by another phone call two days later, after which Ankara said both men had discussed how to seek ways to improve their countries’ relations.
In March, Herzog travelled to Turkey for a state visit in which Erdogan hosted him personally and with full ceremony, the first such event since then-Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s journey to Turkey in 2008. Herzog’s visit was soon followed by a visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Jerusalem and then-Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s visit to Ankara in June.
Then, on Aug. 17, following a phone conversation between Erdogan and now acting Israeli PM Lapid, the two Governments announced their decision to fully restore diplomatic ties and develop their economic and cultural ties.
What, then, made the Turkish leopard change its spots? The Erdogan era began with a dramatic redirection of Turkey’s foreign policy. The legacy of Turkey’s founder, Kamal Ataturk, who resolved to detach Turkey from the Middle East and turn it towards Europe, was replaced with a quest to return Turkish leadership to the Ottoman Empire’s lost lands.
Commonly referred to as “neo-Ottomanism”, the new policy direction was part of a growing rejection of Ataturk’s secular legacy led by Erdogan. Had it worked, it would have refashioned Turkey as the Middle East’s economic engine and political compass. It also would have meant, as Erdogan’s circle saw things, gaining the attention and support of the Arab masses by assuming leadership of the Palestinian cause. This reboot, however, failed.
Erdogan’s attempt to create a free trade zone with the Arab world was politely rejected by its main targets, the Arab Gulf states and Egypt. The Arab rejection of Turkey’s extended hand was so comprehensive that even the embattled Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, when faced with the rebellion that soon afterward unseated him and led to his death, rejected Erdogan’s offer of asylum.
Turkey’s Arab orientation then suffered additional setbacks in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring that began in 2011.
To its south, Ankara’s effort to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad failed, and the Islamist rebels it backed in Syria were defeated. Further south, Turkey’s backing for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, even after that Islamist party’s defeat by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in 2013, resulted in intense diplomatic hostility between Ankara and Cairo, with Erdogan calling al-Sisi a “tyrant” and his Government “illegitimate”.
Finally, at home, the Syrian civil war sent more than three million refugees into Turkey, creating a major burden on its economy, and sparked Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northern Syria, the first such intrusion anywhere in the Arab world since the Ottoman Empire’s downfall a century earlier.
Added up, these developments have left Turkish policymakers disillusioned about the Arab Middle East, and thus less motivated to provoke Israel than they had previously been.
Meanwhile, the Erdogan era’s economic achievements gave way to economic crisis, now underscored by 80% inflation, 10% unemployment, and the lira’s 53% collapse against the US dollar over the past year alone. Lastly, and most painfully from Ankara’ point of view, vast Mediterranean gas fields discovered in recent years have been developed in Israeli and Cypriot waters – close to Turkey but just beyond its reach.
Thanks to Ankara’s long-standing occupation of northern Cyprus, and Erdogan’s hostility toward Israel, this gas is being exported to Arab countries, and there are plans to send it to Europe through a pipeline via Greece, but none of it has gone to Turkey. Turkey thus manoeuvred itself into an isolated position contrary to both its geographic location and national interests.
With Turkey’s economic crisis multiplying the urgency, the energy dimensions of Ankara’s relations with Jerusalem were clearly the key inspiration for the Turkish decision to mend fences with the Jewish state.
Where, then, will this rapprochement lead?
Emotionally, Erdogan’s hatred for Israel, which has at times sounded pretty blatantly antisemitic, is very unlikely to vanish, and his rhetoric will almost certainly remain a problem. Security relations will also not return anytime soon to what they were under Turkey’s secular governments, when Israel upgraded Turkish battle tanks and fighter planes. Intelligence cooperation appears to have been largely restored, yet Turkey will continue to host a Hamas presence, to Israel’s chagrin.
Economically, however, trade will likely now accelerate, led by tourism, with Israelis already returning in droves to Turkey’s beaches, resorts, and bazaars, while also benefitting from the lira’s weakness and the shekel’s strength. Part of this commercial restoration will involve Israeli airlines again flying to Turkey. This traffic will hopefully help reduce the tension that overshadowed Turkish-Israeli relations for the better part of two decades.
Something will also likely happen on the gas front. If it were up to Turkey, it would host a pipeline from Israel’s offshore gas fields into Europe, an idea that is technically complex, but has now become more relevant and urgent in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequent European thirst for non-Russian gas. Even if such a transcontinental scheme does not materialise, Israeli gas will almost certainly reach Turkey itself.
Finally, on the regional front, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation will impact Iran. In June, the Islamic republic’s agents reportedly tried to stage a terror attack in Turkey against Israeli tourists. The attempt was foiled by Israel’s spy agency Mossad in close cooperation with its Turkish equivalent, MIT.
Suspicion between Ankara and Teheran, neighbours and historic rivals, was already rife, but worsened in recent years as the pair found themselves on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war.
War thus hovers behind Turkey’s change of course regarding Israel, but so does peace. Turkey’s mediation of a grain-corridor agreement between Russia and Ukraine has impressed diplomats for its inventiveness and utility. Jerusalem will be hoping this proves to be part of something larger – a kinder and gentler Turkey of the sort that Israelis recall fondly from the years before the rise of Erdogan.