Turkey, Israel and the Gulf in pragmatic balancing act
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made a two-day trip to Israel this week, becoming the first senior Turkish diplomat to visit the country in some 15 years. The recent rapprochement process between the two countries has been characterized as a “fresh start” in relations, with Ankara and Tel Aviv making efforts to mend their broken ties after years of hostility.
The landmark visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose position is largely a ceremonial one, to Turkey in March — the first such visit since Shimon Peres’ trip in 2007 — was instrumental in the advancement of the rapprochement process. After this symbolic visit, the task was handed to the foreign ministries of the two countries, which are now closely working on the appointment of ambassadors to their respective capitals. When relations broke down once again in 2018, Ankara — angered by the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — recalled its ambassador, prompting Tel Aviv to respond in kind. The two countries have not reappointed their ambassadors since.
The normalization process is spearheaded mainly through dialogue and technical contacts, particularly in the areas of energy and trade, while some political aspects of the relationship are kept aside until mutual trust has been built. Analysts following Turkish-Israeli relations or Turkish-Gulf relations mainly refer to the fact that mutual suspicion regarding the long-term ambitions and motivations of each side still prevails. For its part, Israel, which is approaching the detente more cautiously and gradually than Ankara, is trying to understand whether the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy approach is a long-term, structural change or a short-term, pragmatic one.
Both the structural factors at the systemic level and the domestic factors at the state level are relevant here. Domestic and international stakes are intertwined and become more visible as election seasons approach. Henry Kissinger famously observed that Israel had no foreign policy, only domestic policy; however, the same could also be said for Turkey, which is heading toward critical elections scheduled for next year.
For Turkey, reconciliation with Israel has three dimensions: Relations with the US; relations with the Gulf countries within the context of the Abraham Accords; and the dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Egypt, Cyprus and Greece are influential actors that are pressuring Ankara.
Any crises or opportunities that may emerge during the process of rapprochement will shape and limit the policies of these countries
Turkey was among those that condemned the Abraham Accords, which were signed between Israel and two Gulf countries, Bahrain and the UAE, in 2020 and which normalized their diplomatic relations. Ankara even threatened to recall its ambassador from Abu Dhabi after the accords were signed. Subsequent developments, such as the signing of the AlUla Declaration and Joe Biden’s presidency, seem to have pushed Ankara to recognize the accords and join this new trend in the region. Ankara’s updated foreign policy rhetoric toward both Israel and the Gulf countries seems to be consistent with the new regional dynamics fostered by the Abraham Accords.
In regard to the Eastern Mediterranean, there is an important part of the Turkish and Israeli elites that favor good relations on energy and trade issues. Energy sector cooperation is expected to top the agenda, with Ankara expressing a willingness to partner with Tel Aviv on a project that could carry Israeli natural gas to Turkey and then potentially on to Europe. However, there are analysts on the Israeli side who see the prospect of cooperation on such a pipeline as a weak possibility for now because Israel has other regional natural gas partners, such as Greece, Cyprus and Egypt.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who met his Greek and Cypriot counterparts in Athens last month, said the three countries will continue working together on natural gas pipeline projects, with European energy dependency a new focus because of the war in Ukraine. This conflict has evidently made the issue of energy more pressing. It is also sensitive for Israel because of the trilateral security alliance it has formed with Greece and Cyprus.
Gulf countries have also developed relations with Greece and Cyprus in the past few years on several fronts. Both Israel and the Gulf states have maintained that normalizing relations with Turkey will not come at expense of their relations with Athens and Nicosia.
The issue of Iran should not be missed here. Despite Tehran’s involvement in rapprochement efforts, Iran remains a key motivator for these countries to mend fences among themselves. Israel and the Gulf countries have been concerned over a potential restoration of the Iran nuclear deal and, most importantly, the American neglect of Iranian influence in the region. From Turkey’s perspective, Tehran remains a threat as pro-Iran militias have attacked Turkish positions in Iraq.
Given all these mutual interests, both regional and domestic, the ability of Israel, Turkey and the Gulf countries to calculate the stakes and display pragmatism in their relations will become clearer over time. Thus, any series of developments, whether crises or opportunities, that may emerge during the process of rapprochement will shape and limit the policies of these countries.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz