Turkey and Israel: The Revitalization of Relations?

From the 1980s onwards the Turkish-Israeli relations started improving gradually. The year 1996 in particular was a milestone as the two countries signed a series of agreements of military cooperation and training, among others. The agreements were of outmost strategic significance as they gave rise to a pro-Western strategic axis which had a serious impact on the regional balances of power.

From Friends to Foes

The election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power of the Turkish state in 2002 had a gradually negative influence on the relations between Turkey and Israel for two main reasons. The first reason was the systemic changes that occurred in the region after 9/11 and the American invasion in Iraq (2003). The second reason was the AKP’s ideology which is positioned somewhere in between political Islam and democratic ideals even though the party itself denies any relationship to political Islam and declares that it is a “conservative-democratic” party. As far as the first reason is concerned, after 2001 Turkey had to manage a geopolitical environment which was particularly unstable both for its own and Western interests; this created the necessity for a closer relationship with the Arab/Muslim world. In terms of the second reason, the ideology of the AKP and the “Davutoğlu doctrine” (i.e. Turkey’s foreign policy doctrine based on the writings and approach of its Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlou) called for improved relations with the Middle East and distance from the West and Israel. The AKP’s approach toward the Arab/Muslim world and its anti-Western stance gained even greater momentum after 2006. That was when the European Union disappointed Ankara regarding its prospects for accession, while the friction between Turkey and Washington about Iraq – which includes the dimension of the Kurdish issue – continued.

Turkey’s gradual distance from Israel was a necessity if Ankara wanted to develop close relations with the Arabs. Four incidents contributed to that as they allowed Turkey to express its keen support to the Palestinians and the Arab world as well as its opposition to Israel’s policies. These incidents include the war in Lebanon (2006), the Gaza war (2008-2009), the “Gaza flotilla” incident (2010) where Israeli soldiers killed Turkish activists during a raid on the “Mavi Marmara” ship which carried aid to Gaza, and the Gaza war (2012). The anti-Israeli stance of Turkey was seen in remarks of the Turkish Prime Minister (Tayyip Erdoğan) and other state officials. Moreover, after the United Nations (UN) report about the “Gaza flotilla” was released (and did not satisfy Ankara), Turkey downgraded its military and diplomatic relations with Israel and threatened Israel with sanctions. However the 1996 agreements were not canceled and the trade relations between the two reached record high in 2011. To the deteriorating relations were later added even more issues such as the discovery of the Cypriot natural gas (for which Israel supports Cyprus), the trilateral cooperation between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, as well as Turkey’s vote at the UN in favor of the upgrade of Palestine’s status to non-member observer state.

The Revitalization of the Relationship?

Turkey has been asking Israel to apologize for the raid on “Mavi Marmara”, compensate the victims’ families, and end the Gaza blockade as preconditions for the restoration of their relationship. Yet, a number of developments show that Ankara and Tel Aviv might be entering a new period of gradual revitalization of their relations. To begin with, Turkey decided to stop vetoing Israel’s participation in – some of – NATO’s activities as a third-country partner. Also, recently, the plans of the Turkish conglomerate Zorlu Group have been made known and they concern the construction of an undersea pipeline that would transport natural gas from the Israeli reserve “Leviathan” to the southern costs of Turkey. The efforts of Zorlu Group focus on convincing the Israeli government to accept the project. The Turkish Energy Minister stated that such a project could not be realized without the approval of the Turkish Prime Minister or before certain preconditions were met – the preconditions in question were not clarified. Moreover, the Turkish Ministry of Energy publicly confirmed that it was approached by the Israeli government and was proposed the construction of a natural gas pipeline – the Ministry referred to the cold bilateral relations as a constraining factor. Two more facts point to a shift in Turkish-Israeli relations. The first was Israel’s authorization of the passing of Turkish trucks through the Gaza Strip for the construction of a Turkish-Palestinian friendship hospital. The second was Israel’s decision to deliverto Turkey electronic military systems, which are part of the Turkish Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and should have been delivered in 2011. Finally, and most importantly, after Barack Obama’s visit to Israel in March, 2013, the Israeli Prime Minister apologized to his Turkish counterpart “for the deaths of nine Turks in a 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.”

What remains to be evaluated are the factors behind all these developments, the extent to which they are important, as well as the degree in which they could lead Turkey and Israel to a substantive rapprochement. It is important to note that all the aformentioned reveal a pattern: most expressions of “goodwill” come from Israel. Sole exception was Turkey’s lift of the veto on NATO’s cooperation with Israel. This, of course, was not a coincidence as the decision was made after NATO’s approval of the deployment of Patriot missiles into Turkey as a precaution, provided the regional instability which mainly stems from the Syrian crisis. It is thus clear that Turkey’s insecurity about the Syrian crisis, and by extension about the Kurdish issue (i.e. Kurdish separatist movement), has brought Turkey closer to its Western allies. On the other hand it led to concessions vis-à-vis Israel which would, however, serve Turkey’s interests had it found itself under threat because of Syria and/or Iran. After all, the fact that Turkey and Israel have at least some common interests, regarding the Syrian crisis and its geopolitical implications, is not totally irrelevant.

Despite all that, it is obvious that Turkey keeps a distance from Israel. That is because the changes in the regional geopolitical environment after the Arab uprisings (and the emergence of “pro-Islamic” governments) render such a stand necessary if Turkey wanted to maintain its close diplomatic, economic and other relations with these countries and Iran. What Israel’s stance reveals is its need for the formation of alliances in the midst of the tensions and the anti-Israeli feelings in the region, as well as the need of finding alternative export routes for its natural gas. Strategic – security and economic – vents were always an issue for Israel as it is geopolitically landlocked by mostly hostile states. It was against this background – and due to its sensitive security culture – that Israel contributed to the formation of the Greece-Cyprus-Israel “axis”. Even though this trilateral cooperation/alliance could play an important role in the exploitation and export of its natural gas in Europe and beyond, it is a fact that Turkey constitutes, at least theoretically, a better choice as an ally. This is due to its place on the energy map as a transportation hub, its domestic energy needs and its military/strategic capabilities. We should also not neglect the fact that the Israeli apology to Turkey came at a time when the Cypriot economy took a catastrophic hit, the Kurdish problem in Turkey is close to a settlement, and Turkey is at odds with Greece about the latter’s efforts to delimitate its Exclusive Economic Zone. From this perspective, Israel is seeking an alternative to the current instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lastly, let’s not forget, that at least on an economic and trade level, perhaps due to domestic pressures from business interest groups, the relations between the two countries reached record high (2011), notably after their military-diplomatic crisis.

What Lies Ahead

Israel’s hints for cooperation are as clear as the need of the two countries to cooperate, both for common and individual reasons; the extent to which something like that is possible is a different story. It could be said that although Israel took big steps for a rapprochement with Turkey, its suspiciousness, after the Ankara’s hostile stance, has not faded away completely. Further, Israel has to take into account quite a few imponderable factors which could hinder any (energy) cooperation with Turkey – such as possible terrorist attacks from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on natural gas pipelines. At the same time, Turkey will not be quick to risk its relations with the Arab world for a close cooperation with Israel.

Within this framework we could also understand Turkish Prime Minister’s recent remarks at the United Nations. Mr. Erdoğan equated Zionism with Fascism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, while repeating Turkey’s accusations against Israel regarding the “Gaza flotilla”. Through his controversial remarks Mr. Erdogan showed once again Turkey’s need of maintaining good relations with the Arab world, while the contradiction about Zionism and anti-Semitism might be an indication of his effort to balance his approach to Israel. Yet the remarks were unsettling both for Israel and Washington. This suggests that in the eyes of Israel Turkey would most probably be an unreliable partner.

Even so, it would be safe to argue that Israel is pursuing at least a partial revitalization of its relations with Turkey since its efforts for rapprochement are significant both in number and in substance. A decisive factor which could lead Turkey and Israel to a substantive reconciliation, even temporarily, would be the further escalation of the Syrian crisis to the extent that it would pose a direct threat both to Turkey and Israel, as well as to the rest of the Middle East. Alternatively, within the same framework, another threat that could bring the two countries closer would be Iran’s open and direct support of the Syrian regime, or even its emergence as a nuclear power. It is worth noting that in the latter case Turkey would probably remain distant from a possible military attack to Iran from Israel and Western powers.

Admittedly, the outcome will depend on future events. Yet, as the events in the Middle East move in a fast pace and within an environment of high instability and fluidity, it will not be long before we are faced with new and crucial developments.

Published on Strategic Outlook, 26 March 2013

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