On February 6, Haaretz reported that Israeli President Isaac Herzog called to wish Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his wife a speedy recovery, after learning that they both had been infected with the coronavirus. In this fourth phone conversation between the two leaders since Herzog became president in July 2021, the Israeli leader’s good wishes signaled the prospects for a more complicated recovery of Israeli-Turkish relations.
Israel and Turkey are mending fences to widen their margin of diplomatic and strategic maneuver
The reason why Israel and Turkey are mending fences is pretty simple: their leaders are trying to widen their margin of diplomatic and strategic maneuver. Of course, they want to do so without encountering major obstacles, not least of which—for Israel—is Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu’s promise that Turkey will not revive relations “at the expense of the Palestinian cause.” The possibility that Turkey might put the brakes on rapprochement if Israel launches a major attack across or into Gaza, or accelerates settlement building in the occupied West Bank, is surely one reason why Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett insists that Israel must proceed “very slowly and gradually.” But his caution also flows from a deeper source, namely years of mistrust and missteps between the two countries. This is in addition to the perception in Israel that, as one former high ranking security official put it, Turkey “is much more eager than we are and Israel will play hard to get.” Yet despite this tone of caution, and in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is very likely that the two countries will pursue rapprochement.
More Than a Decade of Mistrust
It has been said that in the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But this dictum provides a curiously Orientalist gloss for what, in fact, is the universal logic of all alliances: the priority of state interest over ideology. Under Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the logic of raison d’état has endured, even as he has championed a “neo-Ottomanist” foreign policy whose mix of Turkish nationalism and Sunni Islamist thought has complicated Ankara’s relations with many countries, not least of which is Israel. Indeed, if Erdoğan’s January 2022 announcement that he was inviting Herzog for an official visit to Turkey might have provoked concerns among true believers in the AKP, it also raised eyebrows in Israel. The sense on the part of some Israeli leaders and opinion columnists that Erdoğan cannot be trusted stems in part from their fear that his approach to Israel is fueled not by state interest, but rather by an abiding ideological hostility toward Zionism, or an ever deeper religious antipathy toward Jews.
Such concerns are probably overblown. There is little evidence that Erdoğan harbors ill feelings toward Jews or Judaism. Indeed, during a 2005 meeting with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Erdoğan stated that anti-Semitism was “a crime against humanity.” While his views of Israel have certainly become more hostile, his mounting antagonism seems to have far more to do with Israeli behavior toward Palestinians than any principled opposition to Israel itself.
These years of growing hostility saw periodic—if futile—efforts by Israeli and Turkish officials to repair the breach
Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 Operation Cast Lead military assault in Gaza played a pivotal role in souring relations. However, it was the May 31, 2010 attack on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara flotilla, which resulted in the death of 10 Turkish activists, that pushed Israeli-Turkish relations into a downward spiral of deep mistrust. Although diplomatic relations were restored in June 2016, Erdoğan broke them in May 2018 following the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the ensuing killing by Israeli forces of Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border.
These years of growing hostility saw periodic—if futile—efforts by Israeli and Turkish officials to repair the breach. The failures have kept the pot of distrust simmering, and often hot, even as the regional and global context has evolved in ways that seem to favor Turkish-Israeli reconciliation.
Erdoğan Plays Catch-up with Israel in the UAE
One of these changes is the arrival of new leadership in Israel and the United States. Prime Minister Bennett—with Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s blessing—has sought to reboot US-Israeli relations, thus creating an impetus for Erdoğan to pull back from his own fraught relations with both Israel and the United States. But the key force nudging rapprochement forward is a changing geostrategic map, underscored by the efforts of Arab leaders to foster a regional space of diplomatic, economic, and security maneuverability that is not fully dependent on US power. Israel has already taken advantage of these dynamics, while Turkey is now playing catch-up.
The key force nudging rapprochement is a changing geostrategic map, where Arab leaders seek to foster a regional maneuverability that is not fully dependent on US power
Ankara’s efforts to make up for lost time are recasting its foreign policy while also shaping Israel’s response to Erdoğan’s January invitation to President Herzog to visit Turkey. The timing of that invitation underscores the wider strategic logic that is animating Erdoğan’s moves. The Turkish president alluded to this approach during his November 18, 2021, conversation with Herzog. According to Turkey’s Communications Directorate, Erdoğan highlighted his desire to restore “peace, tolerance, and culture of coexistence in the region.”
This more expansive message provides a vivid contrast with the firm view that Erdoğan was articulating just a year earlier. Back in August 2020 he had denounced the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize relations with Israel. “History and the conscience of the region’s peoples,” he warned, “will not forget and never forgive this hypocritical behaviour.” But fast forward to November 2021 and Erdoğan was telegraphing his readiness to change—if not to forget, then at least to forgive.
Erdoğan emphasized the wider strategic contribution that Turkey-UAE cooperation could make to regional peace and stability
The target of his forgiveness was none other than the UAE. Thus, following Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s November 2021 visit to Turkey, Erdoğan announced his hopes for a new era in relations with the Emirates. The Turkish president’s February 14 visit to Abu Dhabi suggests that this new era had begun. The visit’s purpose, he stated, was nothing less than to build the coming 50 years of “friendship and brotherhood with the UAE.” But while Turkish and Emirati leaders signed agreements on trade, defense, and climate change, beyond their bilateral relations, Erdoğan emphasized the wider strategic contribution that Turkey-UAE cooperation could make to regional peace and stability.
That Erdoğan’s visit came two weeks after President Herzog’s visit (on January 30, 2022) to the UAE—and took place on the very day that Bennett was visiting Bahrain—is telling. This timing suggests that the Turkish president wants to align with the efforts of Israel and Gulf states to tackle security challenges posed by Iran and its Houthi allies, which in the previous weeks had launched drone attacks on the UAE. Alluding to these attacks, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed stressed that Israel and the UAE share a “common view of the threats to regional stability and peace, particularly those posed by militias and terrorist forces,” while Herzog expressed his hopes that other states (i.e., Saudi Arabia) would join the Abraham Accords.
Israeli security officials are probably cautiously pleased that Erdoğan is taking steps to strengthen a regional trend that Israel is actively encouraging
Such hopes are echoed in Israel. For example, Gallia Lindenstrauss, an expert on Turkish foreign policy at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, argues that “The Turkish-UAE rapprochement is viewed as further assurance that Ankara is serious in its current overtures also toward Israel.” Israeli security officials are probably cautiously pleased that Erdoğan is taking steps to strengthen a regional trend that Israel is actively encouraging.
Gas Diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean
As Turkish-Israeli fence-mending gets underway, Israeli officials must also reassure Greece that this process will not come at Athens’s expense. It was only some six months ago that Israeli leaders voiced their concerns about Ankara’s call for a two-state solution to the Cyprus issue, something Athens vehemently opposes. Herzog reportedly expressed these reservations in his July 2021 phone call with Erdoğan. In doing so, he placed Israel squarely on the side of the Biden Administration, which has supported a bicommunal federation to the Cyprus conflict. Moreover, and well before that, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus had already embarked on a joint gas exploration project in the eastern Mediterranean, with a view to creating the “East Med Pipeline.” Turkey responded by launching its own seismographic survey. While this effort produced no results, Turkey’s threat to continue its survey (and perhaps even start drilling) has sustained tensions in the Cypriot waters.
As Turkish-Israeli fence-mending gets underway, Israeli officials must also reassure Greece that this process will not come at Athens’s expense
In January 2022, the Biden Administration announced that it was no longer backing the East Med Pipeline project. The decision was prompted by questions of feasibility, though the White House was also worried about the regional frictions that the project had provoked. Erdoğan surely welcomed this step. Seizing the opportunity, he argued that Turkey could provide a practical route for Israeli gas sales to Europe. But while a pipeline between Israel and Turkey would avoid the choppy seas of the eastern Mediterranean (and help Turkey with its ongoing energy shortages), experts have questioned the costs of the project, especially in contrast to the technical and financial advantages of the 745-mile Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Europe. Awaiting certification by Germany and thus not yet operational, the fate of the pipeline has become entangled in the escalating Ukraine crisis.
Erdoğan’s pitch for an Israeli-Turkish pipeline not only seems reasonable, but it underscores the deeper financial and energy-related motivations driving his opening to Israel
In light of that crisis and Europe’s dependence on Russian Liquefied Natural Gas, Erdoğan’s pitch for an Israeli-Turkish pipeline not only seems reasonable, but it underscores the deeper financial and energy-related motivations driving his opening to Israel. It also highlights the challenges that Israel and Turkey face as they strive to square their warming ties with their respective—if complex—relationships with Moscow.
Other Dilemmas: Iran and Hamas
The Russian bear is not the only source of angst for Israel and Turkey. Israeli leaders must also grapple with Turkey’s ties to Hamas and Iran as they explore Erdoğan’s opening. To be sure, Ankara’s relations with Iran have never been easy. Although a member of the Russian-backed Astana Peace Process for Syria, Turkey has opposed Bashar al-Assad’s government and effectively backed some forces fighting his regime. Further, to the public dismay of Iranian officials, Turkey backed Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Nevertheless , the Turkish-Iranian nexus poses a challenge for Israel, a point underscored by the alacrity with which AKP leaders and others have bragged about Ankara’s ties to Iran. As one from the New Welfare Party put it in September 2020, “Israel’s greatest fear is unity between countries like Turkey and Iran.”
Israeli leaders must also grapple with Turkey’s ties to Hamas and Iran as they explore Erdoğan’s opening
Yet no such unity has materialized. In addition to Turkish-Iranian friction over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in 2021 Turkish officials uncovered two Iranian intelligence cells, the first of which targeted a former Iranian military official while the second was planning to assassinate Yair Geller, a Turkish-Israeli defense sector tycoon. Ironically, the arrest in Istanbul of eight Iranian agents on February 11, 2022, occurred just as the presidents of Israel and Turkey were exchanging diplomatic and personal pleasantries.
Having previously served as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas, Turkey has a relationship with Hamas that could prove useful to Israel
Turkey’s relationship with Hamas could constitute a bigger stumbling block. In November 2021, a Hamas operative with ties to Hamas offices in Turkey mounted an attack in Jerusalem’s Old City. In response, Israeli officials demanded the shuttering of these offices. But with a new government and the ongoing efforts to renew ties, an Israeli official has emphasized that “we didn’t set a condition… in a very careful process of growing closer… We do see increased Turkish activity against terror in their territory.”
That said, having previously served as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas, Turkey has a relationship with Hamas that could prove useful to Israel, especially if another round of violence between Israel and Hamas erupts. Indeed, Israeli leaders probably know that the chances that Turkey would break its ties with Hamas are remote, and that they would be wrong to ignore the Turkish foreign minister’s promise that renewed ties to Israel will not come at the expense of the Palestinians. The challenge for Israeli and Turkish leaders is how to advance rapprochement while also signaling to their own domestic supporters that they will continue to protect their respective and long-standing security and diplomatic commitments.
Ukraine, the Russian Bear, and the Middle East
Haaretz reports that Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, recently summoned Israel’s ambassador for a dressing down. Angered by media reports that Israel had asked for Moscow’s help to evacuate Israeli citizens in the event of a Russian invasion, a Ukrainian official complained to Haaretz: “You are treating us like what? The Gaza Strip or something? It’s just nonsense.”
Israel, like Turkey, cannot risk taking provocative steps that would inflame Russian President Vladimir Putin
This dustup underscores the difficult balancing act that Israel must manage as it tries to sustain and expand diplomatic engagements without antagonizing any one country, especially Russia. Ukrainian officials have already signaled that they are “disappointed” about what they view as Israel’s failure to back Kyiv in its conflict with Moscow. But Israel, like Turkey, cannot risk taking provocative steps that would inflame Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is now showing a level of belligerence that even some of his closest allies at home and abroad did not anticipate a few short months ago.
The impetus to find common ground is growing day by day, pushed forward by power shifts in the global arena and in the wider regional backyard of both Israel and Turkey
With Putin recognizing breakaway Ukrainian regions as independent republics and now launching what could be a full-scale attack on Ukraine, Israel and Turkey will probably boost efforts to mend fences. It is doubtful that this would advance the construction of an Israeli-Turkish pipeline that could substitute for the Nord Stream 2 line. Still, the impetus to find common ground is growing day by day, pushed forward by power shifts in the global arena and in the wider regional backyard of both Israel and Turkey.