Renewal of Turkey-Israel Relations Imminent

by Robert Olson

Turkey and Israel will likely normalize diplomatic relations in the next few months or sooner. The media in Turkey and Israel have reported that the two countries will soon exchange ambassadors—the point at which normalization would be formalized. Trade, military, business, and academic ties already exist.

Diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level were severed as a result of Israel’s May 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara, a ship owned by Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) that tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, an effort purportedly supported by Turkey’s Central Intelligence Agency (MIT). During the raid, Israeli forces killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American binational.

Troubles between the two countries had been brewing since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel statesman Shimon Peres had a spat at the 2009 Davos summit. Erdogan said to Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill,” referring to Israel’s 2008-2009 war against Gaza.

Dealing with Gaza

Gaza remained at the center of Turkey’s grievances when Israel again attacked the enclave in 2014, wreaking extensive damage. The Mavi Marmara raid and Gaza became the focus of negotiations.

On March 20, 2015 Dore Gold, general director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, visited Istanbul to retrieve the bodies of three Israeli citizens killed in a terrorist attack in Istanbul, and further discussions were held. More negotiations were held in June and December 2015. In May, Turkey lifted the embargo that it had imposed as a member of NATO allowing Israel to open offices in the alliance’s Brussels headquarters.

Two of Turkey’s three main demands have been met. In March 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the Mavi Marmara attack but offered no compensation. The proffered apology, however, seem to have gotten negotiations back on track. In the compensation package that the two sides eventually negotiated, the families of the persons killed in the raid will receive nominal payments. This should satisfy the ultra-nationalists and conservative Islamists in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) who strongly support the Palestinians and Hamas. In recent years, Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas, has visited Erdogan several times.

There is no final agreement on the issue of the blockade. Israel has agreed to allow Turkish aid to Gaza, but it wants the aid to pass through Israel’s port of Ashdod and not by land. In this way Israel will have complete control over the provision of the aid, largely construction materials, and will have no direct dealings with Hamas. On May 31, Erdogan said that Turkey had made suggestions on how to meet Gaza’s dire need for water and electricity.

In early 2016 it seemed that the two countries would soon exchange ambassadors. But the change of government in Israel in May brought Avigdor Lieberman into the post of defense minister. Lieberman, an ardent nationalist and enemy of Hamas, set back the negotiations. The changing relationship between Turkey and Israel may compel Lieberman, despite his hostility toward Hamas, to favor the deal, which his predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, did not.

The improvement of Israel’s relations with Egypt means that Israel can count on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to restrain Hamas. El-Sisi counts on ties with Israel to help Egypt fight al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.

In April, Egypt also agreed to return the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which it had held since 1950, back to Saudi Arabia. This development strengthens relations among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Israel-Saudi ties have also grown rapidly during the past six or seven years. These recent developments mean that Israel can count on Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt to constrain Hamas. Turkey, too, has been trying to mend its relations with Egypt. The three major Sunni-majority countries have now adopted policies of restraint regarding Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. For these reasons, Israel will be happy to allow more Turkish construction materials into Gaza.

Israel is also allowing more Turkish businesses and restaurants into Jerusalem, which Ankara interprets as helping the Palestinian economy, at least in Jerusalem. It also provides good food for Turkish pilgrims and helps to cultivate a more ecumenical atmosphere reminiscent of Ottoman times, which makes visiting Jerusalem (al-Quds) more enjoyable for Turkish pilgrims, especially AKP supporters. These developments will further strengthen the burgeoning Israeli-Sunni coalition. In the wake of a full restoration of relations with Turkey, Israel will not object to stronger economic relations between Turkey and Jordan that can help the latter’s woeful economy. Improved relations among Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan will make it easier for these four countries to support an independent Palestinian state or a potential Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, if and when it materializes.

With an Eye on Syria

The main reason for a rapprochement and the restoration of ambassadors between Turkey and Israel is the vastly changed situation in Syria. Ankara needs better relations with Israel now that Russia is likely to remain in Syria for some time, at least along the latter’s Mediterranean coastline. . The souring of relations between Ankara and Moscow goes beyond the mere shooting down of a Russian aircraft. It has to do with what entities will emerge in the wake of the military defeat of Islamic State and other jihadist groups. Turkey needs the power of the Israel Defense Forces and its Air Force to be a major player in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel, meanwhile, needs Turkey as a major carrier of the natural gas now being exploited in the Leviathan field. Israel has stated that Turkey would be the best location for a pipeline to pass through on its way to European markets, which would be Erdogan’s preference as well. When and how the pipeline will be built, financed, and the gas distributed are part of the negotiations.

Israel has decent relations with Russia. Netanyahu and Putin have visited several times to discuss mutual strategies, demands, and polices. Lieberman touts the fact that he and Putin have good chemistry and can discuss matters in Russian. He also stresses that he represents the nearly one million Russian immigrants in Israel. In addition, he often has noted the strong military and technological interests that the two countries share.

Israel and Turkey already share military and weapons technologies. Turkey and Israel have taken advantage of U.S. aid over the past 30 years to the point that both countries since the early 2000s have become major contributors to the building of the F-35 fighter jet. Turkey makes many engine components and Israel the wings of the aircraft. Turkey would also like Israel’s greater participation in other weapon systems such as missiles and drones. Ankara would like to use the technology in Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system to defend its borders against threats that emerge from Syria or Russia. The Turkish government could also adapt such systems for operations against the PKK in Turkey and the People’s Protective Units in Syria.

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.