Last week brought news that Israel and Turkey are set to restore full diplomatic ties, ending the six-year impasse that followed Israel’s interception of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara. Though reconciliation talks have been frequent over the past three years, the breakthrough was made in the context of a worsening security environment in the Middle East; one within which the Turkish Government has fared particularly badly.
The bilateral agreement – formally announced last Monday and signed by the respective foreign ministries last Tuesday – will see a normalisation of relations between the two former allies with increased diplomatic, economic and security cooperation to follow.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has heralded the deal as “an agreement of strategic importance” that will improve stability in the region. Whilst Israeli-Turkish rapprochement is certainly a welcome development, particularly given the complex security challenges faced by both nations, it may be too soon to start celebrating. As Michael Koplow adeptly points out, this newfound reconciliation rests “on a house of cards that will be easily blown over at the first sign of Israeli-Palestinian trouble”.
Background: Behind the Souring of Relations
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Israel and Turkey enjoyed a period of intense defence and intelligence cooperation. Turkey’s relations with its neighbours were fraying, it needed Israel as a buttress against a well-equipped Syrian military and it desired steady access to Israel’s sophisticated military technology. For its part, Israel believed Turkey could act as a “valuable mediator“, improving its relations with the Arab world.
Despite strategic cooperation reaching an all-time high, relations began to fall apart under the leadership of current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (President since 2014; Prime Minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party between 2003 – 2014). Erdogan’s rise to power led to this rupture for two main reasons: his vocal distaste of Israel – classifying Zionism as a ‘crime against humanity‘ and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people – and his strengthening of civilian control over the Turkish military (the major advocate of strong defence ties with Israel).
Relations grew strained in late 2008 following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week offensive into Gaza, which brought to a halt Turkey’s mediation efforts between Israel and Syria. Tensions came to a head after a heated exchange over Gaza broke out at the 2009 World Economic Forum, during which Erdogan launched into a tirade against Israeli President Shimon Peres and stormed off the stage. Ties officially collapsed in May 2010, however; the fallout of Israel’s interception of the Mavi Marmara ship which resulted in 9 Turkish citizens being killed when they attacked Israeli commandos. The Turkish-sponsored flotilla was attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
In the years since, attempts at reconciliation have been marked by a series of stops and starts. Of Erdogan’s three conditions for normalisation (a formal apology, financial compensation for the families of victims, and a lifting of the Gaza blockade), the first was met in March 2013 at the urging of US President Barack Obama and the second was brokered in 2014 when both parties agreed upon the amount for compensation.
Netanyahu’s apology for Israel’s ‘operational failures’ was expected by many – including policymakers in Washington – to pave the way for normalisation; both leaders can be criticised for taking another three years to reach that point.
Terms of the Deal
On the whole, the deal’s terms are good for Israel. As agreed to back in 2014, Israel will set up an US $20 million fund to compensate families of the Turkish nationals killed in the Mavi Marmara raid. In return, Turkey will offer all Israeli military personnel involved in the incident protection from civil and criminal prosecution now and into the future. The Turkish Parliament will also pass legislation to cancel any existing legal claims against IDF officers – a creative way to bypass the court’s refusal to drop the cases. This is a controversial move given the wide public support within Turkey for the victims’ families and the IHH (the Turkish NGO that organised the flotilla) – already, #IsraeilinDostuErdogan (Erdogan, friend of Israel) has begun trending on Twitter with clear negative connotations.
From Israel’s perspective, the deal’s most significant achievement is gaining Turkey’s tacit acceptance of its maritime blockade on Gaza. As mentioned above, Erdogan had long insisted that normalisation would require Israel to lift the blockade, a demand that would have compromised Israeli security and fundamentally altered its Gaza policy. While this security arrangement will thus remain in place (thanks to some ‘creative diplomacy‘ by negotiators), Turkey has agreed to send its humanitarian aid to Gaza via Israel’s Ashdod port. It will also build new infrastructure including a 200-bed hospital, a power station (in conjunction with Germany) and a water desalination plant – indeed, as Netanyahu explains, it is in Israel’s interests to improve Gaza’s electricity and water conditions.
Israel was not successful in all its demands: in particular, Turkey refused to expel Hamas from its soil, though it promised to prevent Hamas from planning and executing terrorist attacks against Israel from Istanbul (including the gathering of funds for such purposes). There is no indication of how this will be monitored, however, or how strictly Turkey will enforce this commitment, given the close ties between Erdogan and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal. Turkey has agreed to pressure Hamas to return the bodies of Israeli soldiers missing in Gaza, but again, this may just be lip service – such decisions are more likely to be made by Hamas’ military wing rather than its political wing (with which Turkey has greater influence).
Whilst some commentators hope that the rapprochement may help to prevent another round of fighting in Gaza (or at least allow Turkey to act as a mediator), former National Security Advisor Major-General Yaakov Amidror is more cautious, stating:
“Turkey doesn’t have the influence people think they have on Hamas. At the end of the day, the conflict in Gaza will be influenced by Hamas in Gaza.”
Nevertheless, Amidror believes the deal has huge potential in terms of security gains for Israel in the long term, once trust has been restored on both sides.
From a diplomatic standpoint, ambassadors will be sent back to the capitals and Turkey has agreed that it will not block Israel from joining international organisations of which it is a member. This is a significant gain that will likely lead to greater NATO-Israel collaboration – already, Israel is on track to open an office at NATO; opposition to which was dropped by Turkey during negotiations as a gesture of goodwill.
Normalisation will also pave the way for substantial economic cooperation, particularly as Israel looks to create a market for the large reserves of natural gas it has discovered in the Mediterranean. Since the souring of its relationship with prime trading partner Russia (following its downing of a Russian fighter jet near its border with Syria in November 2015), Turkey has been seeking to decrease its dependence on Russian gas. This rift was seen by many within Israel as an economic opportunity – but one that looked soon to close following Turkey’s recent overtures towards Russia. Though not formally part of the reconciliation agreement, the deal will facilitate further discussion about building a pipeline to transport Israeli gas to Turkey and then perhaps on to Europe. Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz, having met with Erdogan in Washington this March, has identified gas as an important bilateral opportunity.
That Israeli-Turkish rapprochement comes now – and not three years ago – is best understood by taking a look at Turkey’s current geopolitical situation. It is no coincidence that Erdogan announced his reconciliation with Israel and reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin to apologise for the plane incident on the very same day.
Although the potential for energy cooperation was a clear incentive for both parties, the key driver behind normalisation was Erdogan’s urgent need for a “foreign policy reset” of which Israel is only one target. Over the last half-decade, Erdogan, together with his former foreign minister turned prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu (who resigned this May), pursued a disastrous foreign policy agenda in the Middle East that has left Turkey diplomatically isolated at a time when it faces its gravest security challenges (most clearly illustrated by the Istanbul airport suicide bombings last Tuesday 28 June).
According to Soner Cagaptay and James F. Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
“The Erdogan-Davutoglu team has created more foreign policy problems for Turkey than ever seen in the country’s modern memory. [They] attempted to make Turkey a standalone Middle East Power, [believing] this could be achieved by breaking with the United States when necessary and taking an active role in regional conflicts. Unfortunately, that policy has failed on virtually every front. Turkey’s ties with Egypt, Israel, Russia and Syria all ruptured.”
Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations adds:
“Turkey had been going through a deep sense of isolation for the past few years, having switched from its famous ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy to a place where it had no neighbours without problems. This was the loneliest point in the history of the republic – Qatar and Saudi Arabia looking like the government’s only real friends.”
If we look back to the time of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, Turkey was at the height of its regional power, attempting to realise its goal of Middle Eastern hegemony. Erdogan was in the midst of implementing his ‘zero problems’ policy and expanding his reach, making amends with the Iraqi Kurds, Iran, Syria and Greece and opening relations with Armenia. Getting behind the Palestinian cause and becoming a key player in the conflict was viewed as the way to win over the Arab world (or at least, the Arab street). Turkey no longer viewed Israel as a necessary or convenient ally and the flotilla incident highlighted just how expendable Israel had become.
Times have changed. Today, as Armin Rosen points out:
“Turkey is far weaker, less stable, and more vulnerable than it was the night the Shayetet 13 commandos fast-roped onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara. Over the past six years, Turkey has gone from being a soft-and-hard power-leader at peace with a range of difficult neighbours to a country just hoping to steer itself through a period of regional chaos and incipient civil war.”
During that period, the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood regime of Egypt was removed from power, greatly reducing Turkey’s regional influence. Erdogan refuses to recognise the current Egyptian government, referring to President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi as an ‘illegitimate tyrant‘ and thereby transforming Egypt into a major adversary. Even more problematic is the fact that the civil war in neighbouring Syria is dragging on into its fifth year, continuing to embroil Turkey in the intractable conflict.
As Armin Rosen explains:
“The Syrian conflagration has caused nothing but problems for Turkey, which has supported the removal of president Bashar al-Assad since the conflict’s outset. It isn’t just Assad’s survival or the presence of some 2.7 million Syrian refugees that’s stymied Ankara: ISIS has carried out repeated attacks inside Turkey while opposing stances towards the Assad regime have threatened to bring Ankara and Russia into conflict. Turkey has seen its military and political influence in northern [Syria] reduced as ISIS and then Syrian Kurdish fighters took over nearly the entirety of the Syrian-Turkish border. To make matters even more complicated, the Syrian Kurds are generally allied with the PKK, the Kurdish militant faction that’s fuelling a renewed insurgency in eastern Turkey.”
For years, Israeli-Turkish negotiations were one-sided, largely based around what Israel had to give to Turkey to achieve normalisation. However, as Turkey’s regional standing continued to plummet, it became clear that it was negotiating from a position of weakness. This agreement brings benefits to Turkey and Israel while satisfying the full demands of neither; in this way, it has allowed both leaders to present the deal to their publics as a “victory of sorts“.
The deal has one chief caveat that must be acknowledged, however, which Michael Koplow terms its ‘fatal flaw’: that is, its success depends upon continued quiet in Gaza, which, he claims, is a long shot. Conditions in the Gaza Strip have not improved since the last round of fighting in 2014 and another flare-up is looking increasingly likely, if not inevitable. Renewed conflict could very realistically spell the end of the recent Israeli-Turkish detente.
As Koplow explains:
“The Turkish public still has low opinions of Israel, and Erdogan will be forced to recall his ambassador at the first sign of Palestinian civilian casualties, not to mention what will happen if any nascent Turkish building projects are struck by Israeli fire. Israel, meanwhile, would be hard pressed to retain normal relations with Turkey once Erdogan began his instinctual verbal broadsides against Israel, which in the past have included comparing Israel to Hitler and calling Zionism a crime against humanity.”
Indeed, while rapprochement is certainly a step in the right direction, it has not reversed years of suspicion and animosity between the two governments. Bilateral relations are unlikely to return to the glory days of the late 1990s – at least not in the short term and not without a workable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As Major-General Yaakov Amidror concludes:
“At the end of the day, the Israel-Turkey reconciliation agreement boils down to interests; not trust, and certainly not sympathy. This deal will not usher in a new golden age in Jerusalem-Ankara relations, but it will normalize relations with a major Middle Eastern power.”