Turkey-Israel ties in the post-Netanyahu era
In the realm of foreign policy, vested interests are more important than anything else. However, the role of leadership also affects a country’s international relations to a certain degree. In particular, some politicians who leave office after many years in power leave behind a complex political legacy.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who dominated his country’s politics and personified its policies in the eyes of the world since 2009, has been dethroned.
During the course of his 12-year reign there were several crucial regional developments, including Arab uprisings, the Iran nuclear deal and the Abraham Accords. Also during his tenure, Israel’s relationship with former ally Turkey, which in 1949 was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, reached new lows.
Over the past decade, Ankara and Tel Aviv grew increasingly critical of each other’s policies in the region, and these incompatible agendas put them on a collision course. To shed some light on Netanyahu’s legacy, and the crux of the diplomatic conflict between Israel and Turkey, it is important to recall what happened to the relationship.
The tensions can be traced back to Israel’s assaults on Gaza in 2008 and 2009, which became a turning point. The most dramatic development was the “one minute” incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. During a panel discussion entitled, "Gaza: The Case for Middle East Peace," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the time the Turkish prime minister, refused to be silenced by the moderator while attempting to respond to Israeli President Shimon Peres’ justification for the Israeli military action. Eventually, a frustrated Erdogan stormed off the stage. This was the first big shock in Turkish-Israeli relations.
The escalating tensions led to a diplomatic crisis in January 2010 when the Turkish ambassador to Israel was seated in a conspicuously lower chair than his host’s during a meeting with the Israeli deputy foreign minister, a humiliation interpreted as an attempt to portray the envoy as inferior to the minister. Years later, the ambassador said that “it was an incident unseen in diplomatic history. There are incidents where envoys are mistreated; but you do it to their face, you don’t do it from behind.”
Five months later, the Mavi Marmara incident happened: Israeli security forces raided a flotilla attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, killing nine civilians. Ankara responded by cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel.
Clearly, the years between 2008 and 2010 severely tested Turkish-Israeli relations. Then Arab uprisings began, altering many of the power balances in the region. The changes, including the destabilization of Syria and a strengthening of the Iranian position, posed common threats to Ankara and Tel Aviv and forced the two countries to enter into negotiations.
The first step toward normalization was taken in 2013, when US President Barack Obama facilitated a telephone call between Netanyahu and Erdogan. The former apologized for the Mavi Marmara incident and pledged to compensate the families of the victims. However, no progress was made due to domestic and regional developments that year: A military coup in Egypt, and the Gezi Park protests that swept across Turkey.
During this period, Erdogan and Netanyahu continued to direct harsh rhetoric toward each other while addressing their supporters, further complicating the reconciliation process.
In 2016, Ankara and Tel Aviv once again reached an agreement and reappointed ambassadors as part of a reconciliation deal. However, the process was cut short when Netanyahu found himself, following the election of Donald Trump as US president, with the opportunity to realize his dream of making Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, and the harsh Israeli response to Palestinian street protests that followed, in which 52 people lost their lives, led to another collapse of efforts to improve Turkish-Israeli relations. Diplomatic ties were downgraded again in 2018. Since then, ties between the two states have maintained only at the level of charge d’affaires.
In December last year, Erdogan said that Turkey has not fully severed relations with Israel and continues to cooperate with the country in intelligence matters, adding that “the main problem right now is about the individuals at the top.”
Now that Netanyahu, considered by Ankara to be the main obstacle to a thawing of relations, has been knocked from his throne, what might the future hold for ties between the nations?
As non-Arab, Western-oriented powers in the region, Turkey and Israel were indispensable partners for decades. However, things have changed in a critical way in the past decade. Ankara’s staunch support for the Palestinian cause, and a distrust of Netanyahu and his aggressive policies, led to several crises that have left deep scars on both nations.
As Turkish-Israeli relations have become increasingly strained, Tel Aviv has sought closer relationships elsewhere with the aim of limiting Turkish influence in the region. Israel even declared its support for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq in 2017, despite Ankara’s concerns.
As non-Arab, Western-oriented powers in the region, Turkey and Israel were indispensable partners for decades. However, things have changed in a critical way in the past decade.
Clearly, Turkey and Israel have for some time been drifting apart in diplomatic, political and security terms. The Palestinian cause, which Erdogan has stated is a red line for Turkey, has become the most fragile issue between two countries. As a result, the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, good or bad, is likely to affect the relationship between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
However, the sea change that followed the election of Joe Biden is also likely to have an effect on Turkish-Israeli relations. New regional geopolitics in the Biden era, together with a combination of economic, energy, intelligence and political interests, might yet propel Turkey and post-Netanyahu Israel into a fresh era of reconciliation.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz