In another milestone move towards strengthening bilateral ties, Turkey and Israel restored full diplomatic relations on 17 August. They announced the return of their respective ambassadors to Tel Aviv and Ankara, as well as a possible visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tel Aviv in the near future.
From the Turkish standpoint, restoring relations after a four-year hiatus is part of the attempt to alleviate pressures both at home and abroad, which had mounted in large measure due to an interventionist foreign policy outlook that isolated Turkey more than ever in recent decades. Ankara is therefore sending out messages that it has shifted to a policy of working with other countries in the region to augment mutual interests as opposed to meddling in regional conflicts. Mending fences is also a crucial dimension of the Turkish government’s efforts to reverse the deterioration its economy has experienced in the past three years. Turkish-Israeli relations began to thaw after Isaac Herzog was elected president in 2021, and they thawed further with the fall of the Benjamin Netanyahu government that year.
Turkey’s desire to patch up differences with Israel is also motivated by the prospect of joint energy projects. Turkey has its sights set on becoming a transport hub for the shipping of Israeli natural gas to Europe, which is scrambling to source alternatives to Russian gas. Turkey’s forays into underwater natural gas resources in other countries’ territorial waters and economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean have triggered condemnations from countries in this region and internationally. Projects with Israel might hold a solution to both Turkey’s energy needs and its political isolation. Turkish drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean heightened tensions between it and Cyprus and Greece while other countries with interests in the Eastern Mediterranean came out strongly in favour of Turkey’s adversaries in the region. It thus appears that Ankara has come to realise that it has more hope of strengthening its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean by collaborating with Tel Aviv and that this will simultaneously help dismantle regional alliances opposed to Turkish activities in the Mediterranean.
At another level, Ankara believes it will be able to use Israeli auspices to help resolve its disputes with Western powers and the US in particular. For example, Erdogan hopes that Tel Aviv can persuade Washington to accept Turkey back into the F-35 fighter programme from which it was expelled after purchasing and installing the Russian-made S-400 defence systems. Turkey has a large number of F-16s on order and as the deal needs congressional approval it believes Israel could come in handy there too.
Improved relations with Israel have a major economic dimension. Turkey has been hit by soaring inflation, sharply rising consumer prices, high unemployment and other economic ailments. Suffice it to say that the Turkish lira has lost 40 per cent of its value against the dollar in the space of a year. In remarks to the press in May, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that bilateral trade with Israel had increased remarkably in recent times despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The volume of trade surpassed $10 billion in 2021, he said. Turkish exports to Israel reached a record level of $6.4 billion, making Israel the ninth largest market for Turkish exports.
Nevertheless, the development of Turkish-Israeli relations is not without challenges. Not least is the ongoing connection between Ankara and Hamas in Gaza. Turkey vehemently condemned the Israeli attack on Gaza on 5 August. President Erdogan described it as “unacceptable” and condemned the murder of innocent children. The remarks provoked political forces in Israel who are opposed to the current rapprochement with Turkey and insist that Ankara must first close down Hamas’ offices and training centres on its territories. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv continues to side with Athens and Nicosia in their dispute with Ankara over the latter’s drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. In April, Yair Lapid, who was the Israeli foreign minister at the time, met with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts in Athens in order to discuss the ramifications of the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.
Related to the foregoing, many in Israeli political circles are deeply sceptical about the shift in discourse coming out of Ankara, Israelis are only too well aware of Erdogan’s mood swings. The two sides concluded a previous normalisation agreement in 2016 in order to mend the rupture that occurred following the Mavi Marmara incident in which several Turkish citizens were killed. However, the agreement fell apart in 2018. Some Israeli institutions still rank Turkey as an enemy of the Hebrew state. In 2020, the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman) added Turkey to its list of threats to the state. While intelligence officials ruled out the possibility of a direct clash between Turkey and Israel, they noted that Turkey’s increasingly aggressive stance in the region made it one of the greatest dangers that Israel needed to monitor over the next year.
Another challenge to normalisation comes from within Turkey where the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will face a critical test in the forthcoming elections to be held in mid-2023. By promoting closer and even strategic relations with Israel, Erdogan, as head of the party, risks alienating segments of the party’s traditional base who are generally anti-Israeli and more so following the recent Israeli attack on Gaza. He and his party cannot afford to lose more support, which has been steadily eroding against the backdrop of declining living standards and decreasing purchasing power.
It remains to be seen whether the concessions he makes to his base in this regard will be rhetorical or more substantive and how such actions might be received in Tel Aviv. But the main gauges of progress in Turkish-Israeli relations will be whether Ankara cuts or reduces its ties with radical Islamist groups in Palestine, and the extent to which disputes can be resolved and tensions reduced between Turkey and its adversaries in the Eastern Mediterranean.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.