A first step towards the normalization of Turkey-Israel relations?

Israeli President Isaac Herzog is planned to visit Ankara on March 9 and meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aiming to start a process of normalizing relations between Israel and Turkey. It comes after more than a decade of shaky relations as Erdoğan tries to shift Turkey’s foreign policy from confrontation with its neighbors to one that is more cooperative. Finally, the war in Ukraine creates an additional incentive for the two countries to review their relationship, which the United States should support more actively.

From strategic partnership to antagonism

Since Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949, relations between the two countries have seen many ups and downs. It was the Arab-Israeli peace process in the early 1990s and the prospects for resolving the Palestinian problem that paved the way for the relationship to become a strategic partnership. the both sides appreciated close military cooperation, including in the fight against terrorism and intelligence sharing, as well as strong economic and tourism ties. Once Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003, he continued to support this policy. He has even hosted the late Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas together in Turkey in 2007 and also supported indirect talks between Israel and Syria.

However, this positive climate and partnership ended when Israel launched a military operation against Hamas in Gaza in December 2008. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Erdoğan accused President Peres of “to know[ing] good how to killand stormed out of the meeting. The relationship hit a new low when the Israel Defense Forces in May 2010 attacked a Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara, which was part of a humanitarian flotilla that Israel believed was attempting to breach the naval blockade of Gaza, killing nine. Turks on board and injuring dozens of passengers. Erdogan reacted declaring “that it is no longer possible to conceal or ignore Israel’s anarchy” and that Israel’s action “deserves all kinds of curses”. Moreover, Erdoğan reminded the Turkish ambassador to Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador. Political dialogue between Jerusalem and Ankara has collapsed, while defense cooperation and high-level mutual visits have ceased. Tourism dramatically decreasedalthough commercial ties continued to grow, keeping the relationship between the two countries afloat.

At the request of US President Barack Obama, Israel apologized to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident in 2013 and subsequently agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims, paving the way for a standardization agreement between the two countries in June 2016. This normalization lasted less than two years, when the killing of more than 60 Palestinians protesting the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem on the Gaza-Israel border in May 2018 led the Turkey to lower again its level of diplomatic representation.

Renewed efforts to normalize ties and common interests

Recent Turkish normalization efforts are taking place in a very different context than ten years ago. Erdoğan faces great economic difficulties in his country. His approval rate are out of order; opinion polls indicate that the opposition parties could muster a majority if elections were held today. Furthermore, as noted by several analysts and retired ambassadorsTurkish foreign policy left the country isolated in the region, leading Erdoğan to embark on a vigorous effort to rebuild relations with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Herzog’s visit should be seen as a Turkish effort to move from an ideological foreign policy to a more pragmatic and realistic one.

In this context, Turkey and Israel have traditionally viewed geopolitical trends and developments in the Middle East region in the same way, both attaching great importance to stability in Syria, believing that Iran should not have nuclear weapons and giving priority to the fight against terrorism. Interestingly, in the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis, Turkey and Israel have chosen some form of neutrality. They have rhetorically stood ready territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine while trying not to disrupt their relations with Moscow. Both Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered to mediate; Bennet meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this weekend while Erdoğan spoke with Putin on the phone.

Economically, the leaders of both countries have made sure over the years that political tensions will not disrupt business and investment. Bilateral exchange hit a new high of nearly $5.75 billion in 2020, with Turkey among Israel’s top 10 trading partners. Despite being a much smaller economy, Israel is surprisingly biggest importer of Turkish exports than Russia. Israel’s discovery of offshore natural gas was seen by both sides as a possible game-changer, with Israel’s potential to transport gas to Turkey and from there to southern Europe. Plans for such a pipeline have been shelved in recent years, but the pressure the Russian-Ukrainian war is putting on energy markets should revive them, especially if bilateral relations continue to improve. With the expected further loss of tourism from Russia and Ukraine, Turkey is also keen to recoup Israeli tourism.

However, the main stumbling block between the two countries will remain the Palestinian issue with Erdoğan’s attachment to Hamas and the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement. Erdoğan has often sharply criticized Israel’s Palestinian policy of bringing together and rallying his base. In this regard, Turkey supported Hamas in Gaza (politically and financially) and allowed the organization to establish a representative office in Istanbul, much to Israel’s dismay. The division on the Palestinian issue has been further exacerbated by Erdoğan’s harsh anti-Israel rhetoric, going so far as to accuse Israel of commit genocidewhich Israelis regard as anti-Semitic.

Normalization factors

Over the past decade, Erdoğan has dictated the nature of the relationship, with Israel in a more reactive mode. The negative trajectory of relations has led Israel to align itself more closely with the other countries of the eastern Mediterranean, forming a new regional axis of cooperation with Greece and Cyprus, all concerned by the aggressive regional posture.

The creation of a new government of national unity in Israel in June 2021, led by Bennett and a coalition including for the first time an Arab Islamist party – and the ousting of longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – has been seen as a very positively in Ankara. The election of Isaac Herzog as president in July provided Erdoğan with an opportunity to reach out and establish a channel of communication with the Israeli president, whose role is more ceremonial and considered apolitical, but who maintains a special relationship with Bennett who has a high regard for and is eager to use Herzog’s diplomatic skills. Several telephone conversations in recent months between Erdoğan and Herzog, and one between Erdoğan and Bennett, have signaled a possible rapprochement. The decision to invite Herzog was a well-considered plan by Erdoğan and his advisers and could serve as a first step in normalization of relations.

A major consideration for Erdoğan is Turkey prolonged economic crisis, which led him to reach out to Israel and other regional economic powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a bid to unfreeze relations and seek support. Moreover, improving relations with Israel has always been seen by Turkey as a way to curry favor with Washington and the current circumstances are no different. The Abraham Accords signed in 2020 between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco also made it clear to Erdoğan that the region is moving in a different direction and that Turkey could be left behind if it does not normalize relations. with Israel. The option of resuming bilateral talks on natural gas cooperation appeals to Turkey, especially since the United States has recently announced it no longer supports the EastMed pipeline (between Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy). Turkey was also excluded from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) created in 2020, in which Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt closely coordinate energy policies, and would certainly like to be included in the forum in the future.

On the Israeli side, there is a realization that it is best to neutralize animosity between Jerusalem and Ankara and a recognition that improving relations with Turkey serves core Israeli strategic and economic interests.

Look forward

After more than a decade of acrimony between Israel and Turkey, Herzog’s visit to Turkey is welcome, but should be seen only as a first step in a tenuous relationship marked by deep mistrust. There seems to be an interest on both sides to see him succeed, but much will depend on how the Palestinian issue develops and what stance Erdoğan takes vis-à-vis Hamas’ continued presence in Turkey. Furthermore, the willingness of leaders on both sides to avoid populist rhetoric to serve domestic political ends and instead maintain a pragmatic approach focused on common interests will be essential.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its military presence in Syria significantly alter the regional security order and will likely help to focus minds on both sides in favor of normalization. Moving forward, Washington has an interest in supporting this effort between two key allies and partners, especially in light of the instability resulting from the war in Ukraine.

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