Turkey and Israel — can’t live together, can’t exist apart
Turkey was described by Israeli officials as the “second-best ally” of Israel, behind only the US, when the relationship between Ankara and Tel Aviv was enjoying its golden era during the 1990s. After a decade of deteriorating relations, can Israel reclaim such a lofty position on Turkey’s BFF list?
Turkish scholar Soner Cagaptay suggests that Israel is a country Turkey can neither live with, nor live without. I cannot agree more with this analysis, given that both non-Arab countries are situated in a volatile Middle East where their interests overlap on some issues and clash on others.
Several articles have been published in the Turkish, Israeli and international press about a possible thaw in Turkish-Israeli ties after a recent spate of significant, symbolic events. In April, for example, Turkey began supplying medical equipment to help Israel fight the coronavirus outbreak. This was seen as a significant sign of solidarity that raised hopes of a breakthrough in relations.
There were also unverified reports that suggested Israel might sign a deal with Turkey on the Mediterranean issue. These reports were followed by a message posted on Twitter by the official Israeli account that said Israel was proud of its diplomatic relations with Turkey and hopes these ties will become even stronger.
Last Sunday, for the first time in more than a decade, a flight operated by Israeli flag carrier El-Al landed in Turkey. It was collecting humanitarian aid destined for the US. The Israeli Embassy in Turkey said on Twitter that the restoration of flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul would help boost trade volumes between the nations to “record levels.” Turkish aviation authorities are said to have given El Al approval to operate two flights a week.
El Al passenger flights between the two cities were halted in 2010 when relations deteriorated following the Mavi Marmara incident in the Mediterranean. This was an Israeli military raid on a flotilla of six civilian ships, organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, that was attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid and construction materials. Ten activists were killed.
A few days before last week’s El Al flight to Turkey, Roey Gilad, Israel’s charge d’affaires for Turkey, wrote an Op-Ed for Turkish media website Halimiz in which he highlighted the common interests shared by Israel and Turkey. He noted that Ankara and Tel Aviv do not have to agree on every issue, and that there will be many differences of opinion, but that the battle against COVID-19 and other challenges might work in favor of normalizing relations.
Listing some of the challenges, he said that the presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria works against Ankara’s interests, and that Hezbollah had played a dominant role in the battle in Idlib, during which more than 50 Turkish soldiers lost their lives. He ended his Op-Ed by saying: “The ball is with the Turkish side.”
Gilad also noted that “Turkey and Israel have a long list of common interests” without elaborating on what these are. Allow me, therefore, to explain the main concerns and interests shared by the states, along with some of the contentious issues.
First and foremost is the Syrian crisis. The war poses a threat to Turkey from the south, and to Israel from the north. The war-torn country is positioned between Turkey and Israel like a “ticking time bomb” that has kept both states on high alert for nine years.
As a result, the sharing of intelligence is vital given the common security and military priorities. After the Mavi Marmara incident, intelligence sharing between two countries ceased. Despite negotiations brokered by the US in the past decade, Turkish-Israeli military and intelligence ties have yet to fully recover.
The second issue is the support of the Israeli lobby in the US for Turkey in its dispute with Armenia. When I interviewed Zali de Toledo, head of the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel, in 2013, she stated that the Israeli lobby in the US had played a significant role to refrain from labeling the tragic events of 1915 as “genocide,” adding: “I was the strongest supporter of the Turkish position. And now I am really disappointed to see Turkish-Israeli relations at this point.”
Also, it is significant for Turkey to take Israel to its side in the Kurdish issue, as it was during the 1990s.
Thirdly, there is the adverse effect that the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli ties had on Ankara’s relationship with Washington. This has had deep repercussions, particularly within the Pentagon. In 2013, Washington took an active interest in reuniting its two key allies in the Middle East and, through mediation by President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for the 2010 flotilla incident. However, when assessing the current status of the relationship, it is hard to argue that Washington’s recent role has been helpful.
After a decade of deteriorating relations, can Israel reclaim a lofty position on Turkey’s BFF list?
The fourth issue is cooperation on energy and trade. Although defense ties also ended in 2010, commercial ties were not undermined and have continued to develop. The thaw in relations does also serve Israel, which is isolated in a mostly secure neighborhood, as well as Turkey.
A number of contentious issues remain, of course, but the two states should be able to “agree to disagree” about them to further their wider, long-term regional interests. For example, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the settlement problem and the moving of the Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem seem likely to remain bones of contention.
Yet cooperation on the previously described issues, and the restoration of bilateral relations to the ambassadorial level, would benefit both sides. No one expects the once-close allies to return to the golden days of their 1990s relationship overnight; however, diplomacy always offers ways to overcome mutual suspicion and domestic obstacles, and come to terms with differences of opinion.
The recent signs suggest there is a potential for greater cooperation, and it is in the best interests of both Israel and Turkey to make this happen.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz