Why Erdogan and Netanyahu have decided to seek closer ties


Why Erdogan and Netanyahu have decided to seek closer ties

AFP Photo/Turkish Presidency Press Office
Erdogan and Netanyahu met on the sidelines of UNGA 78; this was the first documented meeting between the two leaders (File/AFP)
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The highly anticipated encounter between the leaders of Turkiye and Israel, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu, finally occurred on Tuesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. This was the first documented meeting between the two leaders. The two countries had close ties until the infamous Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, which was a pivotal moment in the relationship between Tel Aviv and Ankara.

Key highlights from the meeting, which were shared with the press, included an agreement to arrange mutual visits; the possibility of Erdogan visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in the near future; cooperation on various fields such as energy, technology, innovation, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity; discussions regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations; and efforts to normalize Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia.

The meeting took place a day after Erdogan expressed support for the US administration’s initiative to broker an Israeli-Saudi deal, as he believed it could help reduce tensions in the region. It also occurred in the context of warming relations between the two countries, following Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara in March, which marked the first high-level Israeli visit since 2008, and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s meeting with the Turkish leader in February. Indications of improved ties were also apparent in Erdogan’s speech at the UNGA. In contrast to previous years, he refrained from criticizing Israel.

Erdogan has a long history of animosity with Netanyahu, with the two leaders having publicly exchanged harsh words for many years. Few leaders have experienced such prolonged tension with Erdogan as Netanyahu. Therefore, the meeting held greater significance than merely two ambitious leaders coming together; it reflected the repercussions of multiple factors operating on three levels: domestic, regional and the involvement of the US.

Beginning with the role of the US, the improvement in Turkish-Israeli relations has consistently been intertwined with Ankara’s relations with America and the Jewish lobby there. This lobby has significant sway in either bolstering or undermining Turkiye’s relations with Washington. Historically, its support has proven beneficial for Ankara in various cases, such as the Armenian issue, Greek claims and arms sales.

The meeting held greater significance than merely two ambitious leaders coming together

Sinem Cengiz

However, following the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, the Jewish lobby changed its stance, leaving Turkiye vulnerable. The US went on to back several decisions that were contentious from a Turkish perspective. Over the years, Ankara has come to recognize that, without the backing of the Jewish lobby, it is challenging for it to make further strides in its relations with the US.

The second factor at play is the shifting regional dynamics that have prompted the two countries to reassess their relations. Historically, regional developments have been a significant driver in shaping Turkish and Israeli calculations toward each other. In the past, when Turkiye faced threats from its neighbors, namely Iraq, Iran and Syria, it tended to draw closer to Israel. Similarly, for Israel, the Iranian threat has consistently been a motivating factor in forging closer ties with Turkiye and other regional powers. The significance of the Iranian factor should not be underestimated in Tel Aviv’s signing of the historic Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the UAE.

Moreover, the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, which culminated in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia thanks to Turkish and Israeli support, played a role in thawing relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara. One of the consequences of the war was the diminishing influence of Iran in the region. Israel’s support for Azerbaijan was primarily driven by Tehran’s support for Armenia. In seeking to establish a closer relationship with Baku, Israel, which also hosts a sizable Azerbaijani diaspora, provided support against Yerevan. This common cause brought Tel Aviv and Ankara together once again.

The third factor to consider is the situation in Syria, where both countries face similar threats. Moreover, Israel is uneasy about Turkiye’s close contacts with Iran and Russia on the Syrian file. Tel Aviv does not want Turkiye to align itself with the Russian-Iranian axis.

From the Turkish perspective, there have been concerns about the close energy ties between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, particularly in regard to the EastMed pipeline, which aims to export Israeli and Egyptian liquefied gas to Europe.

For Turkiye, improving its ties with Israel is part of a broader overhaul of its foreign policy

Sinem Cengiz

For Turkiye, improving its ties with Israel is part of a broader overhaul of its foreign policy — a policy that had left Ankara isolated in the region. Turkiye is also expected to strengthen its ties with the Gulf countries, so the restoration of ties with Israel aligns with this policy as well as with the US-mediated Abraham Accords. Turkiye is now not as vocally against the Abraham Accords as it was when they were signed in 2020.

At the domestic level, it is worth noting the observation of prominent scholar Louis Fishman, who has written: “If you look at the two countries’ domestic politics, they perhaps are much more alike than different, like two peas in a pod.”

Netanyahu has faced legal challenges for several years, including allegations of corruption, fraud and breach of trust, which have triggered a political crisis in the country. He needs to demonstrate to the public that he is reconciling with former regional rivals for the sake of the economy. In Turkiye, the situation mirrors this, as Ankara is striving to break its regional isolation to attract financial investments.

Both countries now seek to increase bilateral trade, even though it is important to note that Turkiye remained a key trading partner of Israel even during the height of the tension between the two countries. In recent months, they have also discussed the idea of an Israel-Turkiye natural gas pipeline, though the likelihood of such a project materializing appears extremely low for a variety of reasons.

Thus, economic and energy-related interests, closely linked to domestic gains, shifting regional dynamics and the US factor, play a predominant role in the new phase of Turkish-Israeli relations initiated by Erdogan and Netanyahu.

  • Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz
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