What is behind the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement?
In stating that “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” the 19th century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston epitomized his country’s pragmatism when it came to engaging in international affairs.
There is much of this attitude to be seen in the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel in recent months. The friendship-enmity pendulum between the two countries has always swung from side to side, and the visit by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Ankara this week for meetings with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to indicate that relations between these major regional powers are back on a friendlier trajectory — although there have been false dawns before.
It could be argued that it is in the best interests of both countries to maintain strong ties but that Erdogan’s previous positioning of Ankara as a champion of militant-Islamist elements in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was bound to cause friction. Ending up at loggerheads with fellow populist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on this issue made a breakdown in relations inevitable, as both leaders thrived on confrontations that pandered to their voter base, rather than employing a more subtle diplomacy that could have served their countries better.
The warm welcome Herzog received in Ankara clearly demonstrated the wishes of both sides to leave behind more than a decade of topsy-turvy relations. Above all, the two leaders were responding to the shifting geopolitics of the region. They were helped by the change of government in Israel and in particular the ousting of Netanyahu, during whose premiership relations became strained — although this was not necessarily, or exclusively, all his doing.
Relations between Israel and Turkey reached rock bottom in May 2010 when a flotilla set sail from Turkey with the aim of breaking Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza, an operation that ended in disaster when 10 Turkish activists were killed during a confrontation with Israeli commandos who boarded the largest ship in the convoy, the Mavi Marmara.
A crisis inevitably ensued and Turkey severed diplomatic relations with Israel. They were briefly restored when US President Barack Obama brokered a deal for an Israeli apology for the loss of life on the vessel and an agreement to compensate the families of the dead.
Subsequently, however, in response to the decision of the Trump administration to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to the disproportionate use of force by Israeli security forces against Palestinians participating in the March of Return protests in Gaza in 2018, Turkey once again decided to recall its ambassador and order the Israeli envoy in Ankara to return home for consultations.
Erdogan’s Turkey put a strain on relations with other Israeli allies besides the US, and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood damaged relations with Egypt, increasingly pushing the country into the precarious position of becoming a declining force in the region.
Herzog’s visit therefore needs to be viewed in the context of a realization by Ankara that for economic, political, security and energy reasons, improved relations with Israel, and other regional powers, are required.
A major catalyst for Erdogan’s change of heart is the normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries through the Abraham Accords.
Moreover, a major catalyst for Erdogan’s change of heart with regard to Israel was the normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries through the Abraham Accords, not to mention the reconciliation and improvement in relations between Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and also Egypt, all of which had increased Turkey’s sense of isolation.
A build-up of factors cleared the way for Herzog’s visit after the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett came to power in Israel last June. Whether by coincidence or design, the arrest later last year of an Israeli couple on holiday in Istanbul, on charges of espionage, created a mini-crisis that was resolved almost immediately thanks to intervention at the very top levels, defusing what otherwise could have turned into a prolonged and messy affair.
Herzog and Bennett called Erdogan to thank him for releasing the couple, sending signals from both sides that it was time to take a step back from the toxic rhetoric of the past and work toward normalizing relations. Astonishingly, those were the first official communications between Israeli and Turkish leaders since 2013. Herzog’s visit was the first by an Israeli head of state to Turkey since 2008, illustrating the extent of the rift that had developed between the two countries.
As far as the respective executive powers entrusted to Erdogan and Herzog go, the meeting was something of a mismatch, given that the presidency is more of a ceremonial position in Israel while the Turkish president holds most of the executive power. However, this does not diminish the importance of the two-day visit in paving the way for a resumption of more constructive relations.
Moreover, there is a wide range of regional issues of concern to both leaderships, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the crises in Syria and Lebanon, the effects that events in Ukraine might have on the region, and Turkey’s possible participation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East Climate Change Initiative.
The two countries share common concerns about more than a decade of conflict in Syria, and found themselves on the same side in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through their support for Azerbaijan. Moreover, there are a number of bilateral issues to be addressed that could bring mutual benefits, including military cooperation, counterterrorism efforts and intelligence sharing, in addition to very strong trade and tourism links. The flotilla crisis greatly reduced the number of tourists and badly hurt the Turkish economy. It might suffer further from a decline in Russian and Ukrainian tourists for the foreseeable future.
Yet trade between the two countries has remained healthy despite the prolonged political tensions, increasing in value from $3.8 billion in 2008 to $6.5 billion in 2020. The vast majority of this comes from Turkish exports to Israel.
If we add to this the dramatic rise in the price of natural gas, which is making reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean increasingly attractive in terms of cooperation on extraction and transportation, the case for the alignment of interests between Turkey and Israel is overwhelming.
Nevertheless, both countries also continue to harbor some deep differences, especially on the Palestinian issue. However, the visit by Herzog, along with other confidence-building measures that are now taking place, demonstrates that Turkey and Israel are now choosing cooperation, accompanied by robust conversations, instead of unnecessary and damaging discord, especially in public.
This could also make Turkey an important and more helpful player with regard to the Palestinian issue.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.