Turning over a new leaf in relations with Israel

Yitzhak Herzog (on the right), the President of Israel is expected to visit Turkey as Tayyip Erdoğan (on the left), the President of Turkey announced in January.

I want to start with a sentence attributed to Vladimir Ilich Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”. This could not be more applicable to recent developments in global politics. Turkey’s recent rapprochement of Israel is a good example that fits this description.

The Government of Turkey seems to have realized that some of its erratic policies will come back to haunt them. Recent foreign policy initiatives indicate that Turkey is on a charm offensive to soften the blowback it expects from its past mistakes. In this spirit, the government abandoned earlier rhetoric that resonated well with its domestic political base but had little international policy value. As a result, we are witnessing intense efforts to repair the bilateral relationship with regional adversaries. The recent visit to Turkey by the leader of the United Arab Emirates is meant to symbolize the fresh start Turkey is ambitious to achieve with others as well.

These efforts are awarded a brand new foreign policy slogan. After the “Zero Problem” doctrine, which ended up resembling “Zero Solutions”, the government now likes to refer to its foreign policy objectives as the “Problem-free Circle”, representing its desire to create a circle of allies with regional countries.

Having finally realized that a foreign policy based on angry statements and unilateral actions achieves very little, Turkey’s government has dramatically changed its approach to Israel as well. This is perhaps the most concrete manifestation of the government’s change in attitude.

These efforts have found a receptive audience in Tel Aviv as well as Israel also realized that it is better off enjoying good relations with Turkey. One cannot help but ask whether it was essential to force ties with Israel, a critical regional country, to a boiling point to begin with? Sadly the political leaders on both sides acted impulsively and did not calculate the potential cost of their negligent policies. And instead of assuming responsibility for certain mistakes and trying to find common ground based on mutual interest, both sides tried to leverage this bickering politically. Turkey supported Hamas to spite Israel and Israel felt entitled to murder 11 Turkish civilians during the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. Such mistakes inevitably escalated the tension between the two countries.  

How did it all start?

The beginning of the events that strained relations goes back to “Operation Cast Lead”. Israel initiated this military operation in December 2008 to quell Palestinian paramilitary groups in Gaza, but the military methods it used were heavily criticized internationally and became known in the Muslim world as the “Gaza Massacre”. Unfortunately, this operation was started only days after a meeting between the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan where Mr. Erdoğan advocated for a peaceful solution. Erdogan felt betrayed by Olmert, who seemed to have left the table only to order a military operation that killed hundreds of Palestinians, leaving Erdoğan in a difficult spot politically.

Shortly thereafter, in the first weeks of 2009, during a plenary session of the Davos Conference, Erdoğan ended up raising his voice to the late President of Israel, Shimon Peres, which became known as the “One-Minute” incident.

And finally, the Mavi Marmara Flotilla incident occurred in the spring of 2010, where 11 Turkish citizens were killed in international waters by Israeli special forces.

And beyond that point, it seemed impossible to get the relationship back on track again. Erdoğan perceived Olmert’s behaviour as a personal slight to his person and hardened his approach to Israel, never forgiving Olmert for his failure to keep his promise to find a peaceful solution.

Turkey shifted gears and started putting its weight behind Palestinian authorities. In short, both sides took the relationship for granted, and created an environment that was detrimental for regional peace and stability.  

Israel has less to lose if these attempts fail

While I sincerely hope Turkey’s efforts to rebuild the relationship will succeed, it is important to realize Israel has less to lose if these attempts fail. If we analyze recent attempts to build a circle of allies from the perspective of Turkish Israeli relations, it would be unrealistic to quickly expect a full normalization. We need to realize that we need this normalization more than Israel does. Israel is doing much better economically and, from a geostrategic angle, has less need for Turkey than before. While Turkey used to be Israel’s only Muslim-majority ally in the region, the Abraham Accords have remedied this situation, and Israel now enjoys other allies in the Sunni world, rendering Turkey less valuable.

It is therefore important to manage expectations for the aftermath of the expected visit by Yitzhak Herzog, the President of Israel. Following the visit, it will be necessary to execute a series of confidence-building measures to regain the trust of Israel’s political authorities as well as the Israeli public opinion.

While challenges remain, there are also good reasons to be optimistic. Perhaps most importantly, the simple fact that the economic relationship continued to prosper even during the years that the political relationship was frozen. The refusal of economic relations to be subservient to political relations should be seen as a major source of hope, and Erdoğan’s statement that Turkey could carry Israeli gas to Europe could not be better timed even though it might prove difficult to finance such a pipeline. Similarly, the number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey has substantially increased in recent years, and the cultural angle of the relationship, including sports events, are also reasons to be optimistic.

Israel, Iran, Azerbaijan

Another reason that the bilateral relationship is proving more resilient than many analysts assumed until recently is the ability of Israeli decision-makers to think strategically. Israeli policy-makers are uniquely qualified in recognizing that Israel will also benefit, in the long-term, from better and stronger relations with Turkey. Both countries have a common interest in containing Iranian influence in the region, especially with the latter taking an increasingly more aggressive approach in trying to wield power in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In addition, Iranian efforts to increase its influence in Gulf countries such as the UAE, as well as attempts to undermine stability in the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia will further add to the importance of stronger Turkish Israeli relations.

Benefits of rapprochement in the West and the Hamas factor

I am also convinced that Israel is well aware of the fact that Turkey could assume a significant role in ensuring that the deep differences of opinion between Israel and Hamas do not lead to more violent conflicts between the two sides. In fact, everyone knows that Turkey was able to play such a role successfully in the past. Therefore, if Turkey once again adopts a constructive attitude on this matter, it would have a very concrete and positive effect on rebuilding the relationship to its past glory. It is, therefore, no surprise that Turkey has made substantial efforts to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood as well as from armed factions of Hamas. Turkish policy-makers should realize, however that their Israeli counterparts will be monitoring closely whether such efforts enjoy real continuity.

Beyond any doubt, Western allies of both countries, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, will actively welcome more cooperation between Turkey and Israel. In fact, any measure of improvement in our relations with Israel will inherently have a positive impact on our relations with these countries. This, in turn, will resonate positively with Turkey’s defence industry ambitions as well as other policy areas.

Israel also has a lot to gain

Israel should take care to rebuild relations with Turkey on a “win-win” basis to ensure its continuity and its leaders should look past transitional disagreements and remember longstanding amicable relations between the Turkish and the Jewish peoples. While few people in the West will recall, Turkey was the first majority-Muslim country to recognize Israel when it gained independence; a fact that will never be forgotten by the Israeli people.

In short, by adopting a pragmatic approach, Turkey managed to break the ice with the UAE. And it is now working to rebuild relations with Israel while considering options to reconcile with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Today’s political authorities now realize that rebuilding trust is much more difficult than destroying it.

Time for allies to be allies

While I am not entirely convinced that recent attempts to regain the trust that was lost in the last 15 years, are the result of deep introspection and a serious analysis of past mistakes, I remain hopeful that a convergence of interest between the two countries as well as the realization that enough challenges exist for both parties without constant bickering with old allies, will be enough to give these efforts continuity. It is past time to let bygones be bygones and look ahead while focusing on what unites us rather than fighting about our disagreements.


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