Turkish Israeli relations are hanging by a thread
Since Turkey recognized Israel in 1949, relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have suffered their ups and downs. But the intensity has grown since 2010 as a result of the disastrous confrontation over the Turkish-led flotilla of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. In a terrible mishap, Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists after landing on the largest vessel, the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara. Over the next six years, relations between these two former allies reached their lowest ebb. It took an intense US mediation effort, and for Israel to accept that it should pay very generous compensation to the families of those who lost their lives on the Mavi Marmara, for relations between the two countries to normalize again.
Nevertheless, the alliance between the two has never recovered from the flotilla debacle, and the close economic, political and military relations they had experienced until then have never returned to the same level, even after the compensation agreement. Yet recent events, including the moving of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and the Israeli response to the Gaza border protests that left an estimated 100 Palestinians dead and many hundreds more injured, have put further strain on relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not one to miss an opportunity to place himself center stage in championing the Palestinian cause, and he was quick to initiate a diplomatic crisis with Israel following the Gaza border killings. First, he recalled his ambassador from Israel for consultation, and then escalated the crisis the very next day by expelling Israel’s ambassador in Ankara. The response from Israel was instant, summoning the Turkish consul in Jerusalem to the Foreign Ministry and asking him to leave the country until further notice. It is still unclear whether or not the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador is a temporary move. However, all this clearly signals another severe crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations. Unless both sides realize, and rather quickly, that another long period without diplomatic relations will not serve either country’s wider strategic interests, this crisis is doomed to drag on.
It took a painstaking effort by the Obama administration, including by the president himself, to reconcile the two countries following the flotilla incident. In the 2016 agreement, Israel agreed to pay in excess of $20 million in compensation to the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, and Turkey was allowed to deliver aid to Gaza via an Israeli port. In return, the Turkish government agreed to pass legislation protecting Israeli troops from legal action over their behavior on the aid ship, and to prevent Hamas from operating in Turkey either militarily or even for fundraising purposes. To ensure that Turkey could still be seen as leading the charge to relieve the plight of the people in Gaza, it was allowed to advance much-needed infrastructure projects aimed at improving the humanitarian situation.
History shows us that there is a precedent for Turkey severing its diplomatic relations with Israel in retaliation for changing the status quo in Jerusalem. It did so in 1980 following Israel’s decision to annex the eastern side of the city and apply Israeli law to the entire city. It took the Madrid Peace Conference a dozen years later for Turkey to renew relations. But if in the past it was enough for Ankara to reconsider its relations with Israel as a result of events involving Gaza or Jerusalem, it was not surprising, then, that when both issues dominated the Israeli-Palestinian agenda last week, almost on the same day, tensions between the two countries arose almost instantly.
There is a broad international consensus that the US Embassy move to Jerusalem is a hindrance to future peace negotiations and a provocation for the Palestinians.
It was also the timing of the US Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem — on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948), which was the culmination of the “Great March of Return” — that gave Erdogan the opportunity to position himself as the foremost, or at least loudest, defender of the Palestinian cause. A similar pattern of behavior appeared last year, when Israel introduced ill-fated and short-lived metal detectors to screen Muslim worshippers before they entered Al-Haram Al Sharif; and again when the US administration announced in December that the US embassy would relocate.
There is a broad international consensus that the US Embassy move to Jerusalem is a hindrance to future peace negotiations and a provocation for the Palestinians, and that Israel’s trigger-happy approach in Gaza deserves strong condemnation. Yet the current Turkish approach is more about Erdogan and the image he is trying to build for himself — in the Muslim world and the Middle East region — of someone who deeply cares for people’s human rights and their aspirations to self-determination.
Ironically, his own country’s record on both is appalling. He has jailed most of his opposition rivals and his control of the media is almost absolute; journalists are constantly harassed and even the faintest criticism is not tolerated. Erdogan’s decision to invade Syria earlier this year — to crush Kurdish forces there, as he does on Turkish soil — demonstrates little or no sensitivity to the Kurds’ right to self-determination. He is almost guaranteed to win next month’s elections and so is highly likely to further consolidate his autocratic rule.
While there is a wide range of common political, strategic and economic interests between Turkey and Israel, both are led by nationalist-populists; in the case of Israel, a government coalition of this ilk. Countering the Iranian threat and that from radical terrorists on the doorstep of each country should be a priority for both Ankara and Tel Aviv. However, in both cases, though Erdogan is for now ahead of the curve compared to Benjamin Netanyahu, the leadership is merely pursuing policies designed to keep it in power, stirring up nationalist fervor among its supporters and clashing with external powers at the expense of addressing acute issues at home.
In the case of Israel and Turkey, the Palestinians could have benefited from different leaderships in both countries, which would have seen the Palestinian cause as an end in itself and not a means to pursue their own narrow political interests. But, thus far, such a cynical exploitation of a people’s misery has worked well for Netanyahu and Erdogan, keeping them in power, and at the present time it is hard to imagine them making any changes to a formula that has proved so successful for so long.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg