Last month, Israel’s president Isaac Herzog visited Turkey to meet his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the first visit by an Israeli head of state since 2007. The visit came as part of an effort to improve Turkish-Israeli relations, after more than a decade of broken diplomatic ties, mainly due to the Palestinian issue. In recent years, Turkey and Israel attempted to restore relations, but that did not come to fruition as Israel has continued to violate Palestinian human rights, something that Turkey strongly condemned.
This time, however, Turkish and Israeli leaders seem willing to rebuild relations. Erdogan described Herzog’s visit as a “turning point” in relations between Turkey and Israel and an opportunity for more cooperation. Likewise, Herzog said that this visit is a way to “lay the foundations of developing friendly relations between our countries and nations, and to build bridges essential to us all.”
Many Turkish citizens criticized Erdogan for seeking to mend ties with Israel. While being warmly welcomed by Erdogan, many people, in support of Palestine, took to the streets with banners proclaiming: “We do not want Herzog in our country.” On Twitter, people reacted to the hashtag #KatilHerzogDefol (Killer Herzog leave our country), making it the number one trending hashtag in Turkey during Herzog’s visit.
As many people resented Herzog’s visit, and in light of both states’ divisions, mainly over the Palestinian issue, will Turkish-Israeli rapprochement actually succeed?
Years of Ruptured Relations
For more than a decade, relations between Turkey and Israel have been turbulent. In 2009, Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, walked out of the World Economic Forum in Davos after a debate with former Israeli president Shimon Peres over Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza in late 2008, which claimed the lives of 1,400 Palestinians.
In 2010, relations took a major downturn after Israel attacked the Mavi Marmara ship, part of a flotilla trying to carry aid to Gaza despite the Israeli naval blockade, and killed 10 Turkish activists. In response, Erdogan declared that his country’s “special” relationship with Israel was “dead” and demanded that the Israeli government be punished.
After six years of animosity, some progress was made as Israel apologized to Turkey and later agreed to financially compensate the families of the 10 activists it killed. This lull, however, was short-lived. In 2018, Erdogan described Israel as a “terrorist” state and accused it of “genocide.” This harsh tone resulted from the killing of more than 200 Palestinians by Israel during the Great March Return Protests, in which Palestinian refugees were demanding a return to their homes that Israel cleansed them from in 1948. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and recalled its diplomats from Israel.
In addition to these specific ruptures, other geopolitical and economic developments in the region have served to further divide Turkey and Israel. For example, Turkey and Israel have taken opposing sides in the Second Libyan Civil War between the Tripoli-based and United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. While Turkey intervened in the conflict to support the GNA, Israel provided arms and military training to the LNA.
What Contributed to this Rapprochement?
In the past decade, Turkey and Israel have taken different foreign policy directions. On the one hand, Turkey embraced the Arab Spring’s uprisings and intervened militarily in the civil wars in Syria and Libya to expand its regional influence and maintain its security. This deteriorated Turkey’s relations with other countries in the region, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which opposed the Turkish involvement in Syria and Libya and support of the Arab Spring. This foreign policy, thus, has resulted in the country’s isolation from the region.
On the other hand, Israel embarked on building more regional alliances. Israel has normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. Regarding the energy sector in the region, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, France, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in 2020, from which Turkey was excluded. EMGF is a coalition aimed at “developing an infrastructure for gas trade within the region and with external markets.”
In the same year, Israel also signed the EastMed accord with Greece and Cyprus, long-time adversaries of Turkey, agreeing to build a natural gas pipeline that would transport Israeli gas to Europe through Greece. Turkey viewed EastMed as an attempt to “undermine its status as an energy hub powering Europe.”
Turkey’s broken ties with many of the region’s countries led to its exclusion from important economic developments like EMGF and EastMed. This, ultimately, drove Erdogan to move towards “a more pragmatic and realist” foreign policy, where Turkey is more open to cooperating with other states like Israel despite major political differences.
Moreover, the situation in Ukraine has increased the potential for cooperation between Turkey and Israel in the energy sector. As Russia may cut off its gas supplies to Europe amid its invasion of Ukraine, EastMed may be seen as a reliable alternative to Russian gas. Nevertheless, this project is not viable and has not had “commercial support,” said Brenda Shaffer, an international energy and foreign policy specialist. To replace Russian gas, Israel has to export its gas to Europe through Turkey, Shaffer suggested.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented Turkey and Israel with an opportunity to supply gas to Europe, Erdogan stressed in the meeting with Herzog that Turkey is “ready to cooperate with Israel in the energy sector.” Similarly, Herzog stated that “Israel and Turkey can and should have a cooperation that can positively affect this entire region we call home.” This rhetoric has translated recently into serious discussions on building a Turkey-Israel gas pipeline.
These factors show why Turkish-Israeli relations are taking a different direction now, after years of estrangement.
Has the Occupation Been Forgotten?
Turkey has been known for its staunch position against Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, especially during the last decade. In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, Erdogan affirmed that “Turkey will continue to stand by the oppressed people of Palestine as it has always done so until today.”
But as Erdogan and Herzog met, some people started to think that Turkey, to maintain its relationship with Israel, will abandon its support of the rights of Palestinians. However, Turkey, unlike the Arab-majority states that have normalized ties with Israel, is actually a historical ally of Israel despite the aforementioned bumps in the road.
Turkey recognized Israel in 1949, being the first Muslim-majority country to do so. Both states have also enjoyed economic and military cooperation throughout history, and even during the years of strained relations, trade between Turkey and Israel continued to grow unabatedly. Last year, trade between Turkey and Israel reached $8.4 billion, rising from $6.2 billion in 2020.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Turkey and Israel are now trying to rebuild their relations. Even if this comes to fruition, “Turkey will not turn its back on its commitment to a Palestinian state,” asserted Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Whether or not this statement is true is yet to be seen.
Will Turkish-Israeli Rapprochement Succeed?
Turkey and Israel remain divided over some issues, something that Erdogan and Herzog are aware of. Ahead of his trip to Ankara, Herzog stated that “we will not agree on everything,” and ties with Turkey will be restored in a “cautious manner.” Hence, while economically promising, Herzog’s visit may not immediately lead to harmonious relations between Turkey and Israel. Rather, it is just an effort to, as Herzog put it, lay the foundations for building friendly relations between the two states.
With Israel’s violence against Palestinian civilians comes the first test to the renewed Turkish-Israeli relations. Turkey was quick to condemn the recent killing of seven Palestinians and the brutality against worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque during the holy month of Ramadan by Israel. Depending on how Turkey continues to react to Israel’s violence, the rapprochement between the two states could either succeed or, as in 2018, collapse.
Edited by Majeed Malhas