Why Israel and Turkey could reset fraught relations

Why Israel and Turkey could reset fraught relations
5 min read
15 January, 2021
Analysis: With rapid changes in the Middle East amid a fluid geopolitical landscape, Turkey could be poised to mend ties with Israel.
Relations between Israel and Turkey could be set to improve. [Getty]
The start of the past decade had been anything but promising for Israeli-Turkish ties

Following the deadly Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have continued to deteriorate, reaching their nadir in 2018 when Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador. 

But with rapid changes in the Middle East amid a fluid geopolitical landscape, Turkey may adapt its position to seek a more flexible policy and new partnerships in the region, including with Israel.

How Israeli-Turkish ties reached an impasse

On 31 May 2010, Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara approximately 70 nautical miles from the Israeli coast. The Turkish-owned boat was the lead ship in a six-vessel flotilla heading to Gaza to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.

Nine Turkish nationals were killed as a result of the raid, marking a key turning point in the deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations. However, despite fierce political reactions and harsh rhetoric, diplomatic and commercial ties between the two countries largely continued. 

That all changed eight years later, shortly after the Trump administration's decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The exceptional significance of Jerusalem for the Palestinian cause fueled mass demonstrations across the occupied Palestinian territories, triggering a brutal Israeli response.

The start of the past decade had been anything but promising for Israeli-Turkish ties

In Gaza, Israeli forces shot and killed more than 60 Palestinians in one day during protests, leading to international condemnation. Turkey decisively confronted the situation, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling Israel an "apartheid state" and personally criticising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the same time, the Turkish government expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara, prompting Israel to do the same with the Turkish Consul in Jerusalem. These moves brought bilateral relations to a renewed, rougher diplomatic standstill, but with one critical difference; this time the impasse had a grave impact on Turkish-Israeli commercial ties. 

Read more: What is driving Saudi Arabia's apparent
rapprochement with Turkey?

Not only have there been signs of a downturn in trade between the two countries, but Israel has also been realigning its regional policy, sidelining talks with Turkey about a potential gas pipeline project.

Tel Aviv has instead been gradually turning to Ankara's foes, such as Greece and Cyprus, signing a €6 billion EastMed pipeline project deal with both countries in early 2020. The establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF) in September last year, and Turkey's exclusion from the club, clearly indicated that Ankara's vested economic interests were at stake.

Regional ambitions

These developments come at a time when Erdogan's Turkish foreign policy strategy has significantly expanded. Contrary to the first years of the AKP's rule, when the president's priority was to restructure the Turkish economy and consolidate his domestic stronghold, in the 2010s and particularly after 2015, Erdogan has been battling to decisively expand Turkey's international footprint

The re-emergence of Turkey as a key regional player is clearly being felt across the Middle East, from Ankara's involvement in the Syrian war to its intervention in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The formal establishment of ties between Israel and Gulf states has created a new regional context

A key characteristic of Turkey's bid for influence has been for Erdogan to present himself as a defender of the Muslim world, with observers describing Ankara's foreign policy strategy as driven by both pan-Islamic and "neo-Ottoman" sentiments.

This is exactly where the Turkish-Israeli showdown fits in. Ties with Tel Aviv have traditionally been a hot potato for most Arab leaders, a political challenge permanently fueled by the suppression of Palestinians under Israel's military occupation. The developments of the past year, however, have challenged this narrative.

Read more: How the GCC reconciliation deal could reshape the region's power balance

The formal establishment of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan have created a new regional context. Considering that both Abu Dhabi and Manama are heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia, the agreements almost certainly proceeded with Riyadh's blessing. 

Hosting the two holiest Islamic sites, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has traditionally been the most influential Sunni power worldwide. The fact that Riyadh indirectly 'legitimised' the normalisation agreements appeared to present an opportunity for Erdogan to fill a developing vacuum as the principal guardian of the Muslim world.

Turkey may adapt its position to seek a more flexible policy and new partnerships in the region, including with Israel

Ankara adapts to an ever-changing context

One essential characteristic of international politics and foreign relations is that they are fluid and ever-changing. The recent rapprochement between Qatar and the GCC, which largely took place on Doha's terms, has been concerning for Ankara.

Read more: How rivals Turkey, Israel and Pakistan ended
up siding with Azerbaijan

Moreover, the limited backlash across the Arab world following the UAE and Bahrain's normalisation agreements with Tel Aviv indicates that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not dictating the international political agenda to the same extent as previous decades.

Being a pragmatic and realist leader, Erdogan has swiftly adjusted the official Turkish position towards Israel. From an aggressive stance with frequent public criticism against Tel Aviv, Ankara has now adopted a conciliatory attitude seeking to re-establish damaged ties.

The Turkish president now understands that, given the current trajectory in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, a zero-sum strategy could prove to be too risky for Turkey. In this sense, one could expect to see further unanticipated changes in Turkish foreign policy in response to ever-changing future geopolitical conditions.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris