Turkey strikes a delicate balance in Palestinian-Israeli relations
During Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s historic visit to the UAE on Feb. 14-15, two significant announcements were made with regard to Turkish-Israeli relations.
On the second day of the trip, it was revealed that Israeli President Isaac Herzog will visit Turkey on March 9-10. The second announcement was about a visit by Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal to Israel and Palestine on Feb. 16-17 to meet officials from both sides.
Herzog’s visit will mark the highest-level trip by an Israeli official to Turkey since 2007, when Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Ankara on the invitation of his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul. During his trip, Peres delivered a speech at the Turkish parliament and participated in a tripartite meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time.
During Herzog’s visit next month, the agenda is expected to include the Palestinian issue, energy, trade, tourism, and regional security, including Eastern Mediterranean balances, Syria, Iran and Libya. Erdogan recently stated that the subject of bringing Israeli gas to Europe will also be part of the talks.
While Turkish media outlets view the upcoming visit as a significant indication of the mending of ties between the two countries, the Israeli media regards it as a “litmus test” for how serious Ankara is about improving diplomatic relations.
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 former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aggressive policies, led to several crises that left deep scars on both nations.
The Turkish delegation’s meetings this week, first with the Abbas administration in Ramallah and then with Israeli officials, to prepare for Herzog’s visit were significant as they indicate Ankara is seeking to adopt a balanced approach to the two sides.
Historically, Turkish-Israeli relations were closely interrelated with the Palestinian issue and the peace process. When the ruling Justice and Development Party or AKP came to power in Turkey in November 2002, the plight of the Palestinians began to occupy an important place in the country’s Middle East policy agenda, and the Turkish government adopted a more cautious approach toward Israel. In particular, the greater weight being given to relations with Hamas led to further distancing between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
Turkey’s economic crises, a polarization in domestic politics, and a decline in anti-Israel rhetoric, have contributed to Ankara’s renewed diplomatic engagement with Israel.
After its election victory in January 2006, Hamas unexpectedly sent a delegation headed by Khaled Meshal to Ankara for a meeting with Turkish officials. Turkey was the first country to meet officially with Hamas, which was seeking legitimacy, and the development raised eyebrows in Tel Aviv. Although Ankara’s aim was to open channels with Hamas and Israel as a go-between, the attempt was regarded by Israel as a mistake that could deeply hurt bilateral relations.
There are three main explanations put forward for the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations in the past two decades or so. The first has its basis in “ideological reasons” and suggests that the AKP is an Islamist party with an anti-Israeli stance. The second is related to a “balance of power perspective” and argues that regional realities on the ground no longer warranted a push for Turkish-Israeli cooperation. The third argument points to a combination of factors at the domestic, regional and international levels that led to the deterioration of relations.
Now, however, factors on the domestic, regional and international levels seem to be pushing Turkey toward reconciliation with Israel. Common security and economic interests have encouraged a rapprochement during this time of shifting balances and rising uncertainties in the region.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, unlike that of his predecessor, has also helped to prepare the ground for Ankara and Tel Aviv to repair their ties. Similarly, the Israeli elections in March 2021, which ended the 12-year rule of Netanyahu and established a coalition government, also provided incentives for rapprochement.
In addition to all of this, Turkey’s economic crises, a polarization in domestic politics, and a decline in anti-Israel rhetoric, which has lost its usefulness in terms of mobilizing the voter base, have also contributed to Ankara’s renewed diplomatic engagement with Israel.
In December, Erdogan met with members of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States and made several conciliatory gestures to Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu subsequently said that the normalization of relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv might enhance Ankara’s role in brokering a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, in which Turkey has sought to mediate several times.
Ahead of Herzog’s visit, an interesting news article in the Jerusalem Post, quoting remarks by an Israeli official, reported that Israel is no longer making it a condition of efforts to repair ties that Turkey crack down on Hamas members.
Previously, this Hamas issue was the major condition set by Israeli officials, while Turkey set its own condition that Israeli policies must be more “sensitive” toward Palestinians if normalization was to happen.
If relations are restored with Israel, Turkey will find itself in a delicately balanced position with regards to the Palestinian-Israeli issue ahead of next year’s critical elections.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz