Can Turkey, Israel strike a balance?
After the deal between Moscow and Ankara to prevent a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib province, there have been reports of talks between Turkey and Israel next month to repair relations and exchange ambassadors.
Turkish-Israeli ties over the past decade have seen ebbs and flows. The latest blow was in May, when Turkey recalled its ambassador and expelled Israel’s following the killing by Israeli forces of 60 Palestinians during protests along the Gaza border. Israel responded by expelling Turkey’s consul general in Jerusalem and summoning its deputy ambassador in Tel Aviv, while a war of words erupted between Turkey’s president and Israel’s prime minister.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently issued an internal tender to fill the position of ambassador to Turkey in the summer of 2019. Turkey has sent a commercial attache to its embassy in Tel Aviv after a years-long absence.
Turkish-Israeli relations have seen ups and downs politically but not economically. Even during political standoffs, commercial ties have developed. If the latest “secret” discussions make progress, the embassies will reopen in early October and the two countries will accelerate efforts toward economic cooperation.
Israel and Turkey also share an interest in opposing growing Iranian dominance in the region
There have been reports that Turkish and Israeli diplomats flew to the UAE to hold secret back-channel talks in a bid to repair relations. Even if such a meeting were held, it would not be made public. We will only know the truth if in the coming weeks Israel and Turkey exchange ambassadors.
Turkish-Israeli cooperation in the region is beneficial for both sides, and the timing of reports of rapprochement does not seem to be a coincidence. A number of factors form the basis for bilateral cooperation despite disagreements. Among the most important are concerns over security threats both countries face due to instability in Syria.
Israel and Turkey also share an interest in opposing growing Iranian dominance in the region. Though their threat perceptions regarding Iran differ significantly, their efforts to rekindle relations are pragmatic and realistic, particularly when it comes to Iran gaining the upper hand in Syria.
Also, Ankara’s complex relations with the US, its rapprochement with Russia and the latest developments regarding Idlib seem to have once again pushed Turkey and Israel to repair relations out of mutual interest. Although a partner with Tehran in the Astana peace process, Ankara’s silence over recent Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria can be read in this context.
History is a good reminder of Turkish-Israeli cooperation against common threats. In 1996, they signed an agreement to cooperate in military training when Turkey was troubled with threats from Syria, Iraq and Iran. One of the most important regional developments in the 1990s was the rise of strategic ties between Turkey and Israel. Today is not much different in terms of security threats and mutual interests.
It would be unrealistic to expect a return to those halcyon days in Turkish-Israeli relations, and Israel has done little to change its negative image among the Turkish public, but mutual interests on several fronts can provide the basis for repairing ties.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.