A new diplomatic role for Turkey
Ankara hosted two important foreign guests on consecutive days last week.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman paid a long-awaited visit, and was received by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an official ceremony at the presidential complex. The crown prince’s visit came after years-long tension in Turkish-Saudi relations and ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Kingdomnext month.
The next day, Yair Lapid became the first Israeli foreign minister to make an official visit to the Turkish capital in almost two decades, since Tzipi Livni who visited Ankara in 2006. Lapid’s historic visit reciprocated that ofMevlut Cavusoglu to İsrael last month, the first visit at foreign minister level in 15 years. Lapid’s visit symbolized another stage in the continuing process of normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey.
These visits followed the landmark trip to Turkey in March by Israeli President Isaac Herzog. The visit of Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, was the first since that of Shimon Peres in 2007 and was instrumental in the advancement of the rapprochement process. The announcement of Herzog’s visit to Turkey came when Erdogan was on a historic visit to the UAE in mid-February. That month Herzog also visited the UAE, which normalized ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords in 2020. Herzog’s trip to the UAE highlighted the burgeoning relations between the two countries, as they each brought to the table several issues for cooperation, of which Turkey may also be a part.
Since 2020, Turkey has engaged in an intense effort to rebuild trust and deepen official dialogue channels with both Israel and the Gulf states in a way that would bring mutual benefits. First the COVID-19 pandemic, then the rapprochement climate in the region, and finally the Russian invasion of Ukraine made it possible for Turkey to open a new chapter in its relationships with former foes.
Lapid’s visit to Ankara came amid political turmoil in Israel. The Israeli parliament voted to dissolve itself after the fragile governing coalition proved untenable, and Lapid will succeed Naftali Bennett as interim prime minister until elections at the end of the year. Despite this, Lapid’s visit to Ankara focused on ways to improve cooperation with Turkey, especially in the realm of security. Lapid thanked Turkey for its efforts in arresting an Iranian assassination squad plotting attacks on Israeli tourists in Istanbul.
Since 2020, Turkey has engaged in an intense effort to rebuild trust and deepen official dialogue channels with both Israel and the Gulf states in a way that would bring mutual benefits.
This warming of Turkish-Israeli relations is expected to boost existing cooperation in the areas of trade and tourism — two fields that were not adversely affected by the tension — and foster cooperation in the realm of security and regional dialogue, issues that are relevant to the current needs of both countries. Israel expects Ankara to continue restricting freedom of action of Hamas operatives in Turkey. Sharing long borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Turkey is of obvious geopolitical interest to Israel. Turkey expects Israel to be a partner to Ankara in issues related to Syria and the eastern Mediterranean.
Iran remains a key motivator in Israel and the Gulf states’ mending fences with Turkey. From Turkey’s perspective, Iran remains a threat, as pro-Iran militias have attacked Turkish positions in Iraq, while Ankara and Tehran support different sides in Syria. Turkey stands at the same point with Israel and Gulf states when it comes to Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In meetings with Gulf leaders, Erdogan had several times restated Turkey’s support for the stability of the Gulf region and condemned the Houthi attacks against the Gulf states. Seen from Ankara, Tel Aviv and the Gulf capitals, the proposed revival of the Iran nuclear deal reflects a softened US stance, risking Iran’s comeback on the international and regional stage. Therefore, they find common cause in collaborating to contain potentially rising Iranian influence.
Israel and the Gulf states are creating a new equilibrium in the region, where Iran and its proxies will be limited. They aim to integrate Turkey into the new security architecture. Biden visit both Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, and also meet leaders of the other GCC states, plus Egypt and Jordan.
To what extent this visit will succeed in easing the concerns about Iran in both Tel Aviv and Gulf capitals is far from clear. However, it is likely to consolidate the prospects of a regional equilibrium between Ankara, Tel Aviv and the Gulf.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz