After a five year and half long diplomatic estrangement between Turkey and Israel on the back of the latter’s assault on the Mavi Maramara ship, which killed ten Turkish activists, there has been talk about the possibility of normalization of relations between the two sides in Israeli press reports, but also a Turkish admission of progress in negotiations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
This paper overviews ten determinants of Turkish-Israeli relations, and the circumstances and catalysts that push in the direction of restoration of full Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations. The paper also highlights the many obstacles facing this.
It seems there are two possible scenarios for the relationship between the two sides. The first and most likely one is an agreement that restores diplomatic ties (if the regional and international climates remain the same) with a mutually agreed solution regarding the easing of the blockade on Gaza Strip (GS). This would appear as a Turkish victory yet without crossing any Israeli red lines. The second scenario: failure of the current negotiations to reach an agreement pending changes in the regional and international climates that would benefit either one of the two sides.
Therefore, what is needed is strengthening the Turkish position regarding the lifting of the GS siege in a way that would prevent any attempts to make this demand symbolical and insubstantial; and strengthening Palestinian-Turkish relations to empower the Turkish position in the face of Israeli and US pressures.
Relations between Turkey and Israel go back decades. Turkey was among the first nations to recognize Israel in 1949, and the first Muslim state to do so. After Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, relations with Israel deepened especially in military and intelligence, resulting in the Peripheral Pact signed in 1958 with Israel, Iran and Ethiopia.
After many ups and downs in the bilateral relations, a military coup in Turkey in 1980 marked a turning point in their ties, which then dramatically improved and developed, and were cemented in all fields. The early 1990s saw a peak with Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller’s visiting Israel in 1994, and President Süleyman Demirel visiting in 1996.
The two parties signed in 1996 dozens of agreements in military, security, economic and political fields, notably for the training of Israeli pilots in Turkey, the development of Turkish tanks and fighter jets in Israel, the deployment of Israeli fighter planes in Turkish territory, as well as deepening the level of intelligence cooperation and exchange. Israel was even given access to listening posts and early warning systems on Turkish territory, through which Israel could spy on some neighboring countries, including Iraq and Syria.
When the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) reached power in 2002, relations between the two countries did not deteriorate, but continue to develop with high-level mutual visits taking place. Then-Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan both visited Israel in 2005, where they received a warm reception.
In parallel with evolving economic relations between the two sides, Turkey tried to mediate between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries such as Syria and Pakistan, before relations soured following the Israeli aggression on GS in 2008. Turkey saw that event as a stab in the back, and a betrayal to its mediation efforts with Syria, in which Turkey had sponsored indirect negotiations between the two sides.
Later, bilateral relations went through several turns and crises, such as the famous incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos in September 2009, and the crisis of insulting the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv in January 2010. But the turning point was the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara ship, after which relations collapsed to their lowest point and remain so to the present day.
Before analyzing the current situation and making projections for the future, we should overview the determinants that have shaped the framework of Turkey’s relationship with Israel in the era of AKP, most notably:
First: Building on the longstanding relationship between the two parties, and the inability to (and perhaps the absence of intent to) bring about radical and direct changes.
Second: Taking into account the political situation in the country when the AKP took power, especially the dominance of the Turkish military over the political scene, with the army maintaining special relations with Israel.
Third: The status of the relationship is a part of Turkish national security and interests, which the ruling party re-interpreted and reformulated without turning against them dramatically.
Fourth: The party’s theory of the need to adapt politics to the needs of the economy including in foreign policy, in conditions of normal relations with other countries, and the separation (disengagement) between them in periods of tension, i.e., maintaining trade and economic relations in spite of political differences, which is what Turkey did even after the Mavi Marmara crisis.
Fifth: Turkey avoided direct and sharp confrontations with any party, given the difficulty of unilateral action in the absence of regional partners, regardless of how high the ceiling of its discourse has been.
Sixth: Considering the relationship with Israel part of Turkey’s relations with the West—the United States of America, the European Union and NATO—and a key to gain the confidence of these parties through good relationship, or at least non-confrontation with Israel.
Seventh: Turkey’s need for Israel in several areas, particularly in security cooperation and the development of weapons and defense industries, especially in the first years of the rule of the AKP.
Eighth: Taking into account the gradual changes in the relationship, where the AKP’s internal strength affected the relationship with Israel, in such a way as to downgrading some links and obligations, in a quiet and slow manner that does not lead to acute crises with Israel and does not provoke the West against Ankara.
Ninth: Not exceeding the Arab – International ceiling in dealing with the Palestinian issue, committing to a political solution based on the “two-state solution” and the Arab peace initiative, and even calling for bringing in Hamas to the peace process.
Tenth: Not exceeding the limits in the political, media, and financial support given to Palestinian factions, taking into account that the financial support has taken the form of aid and humanitarian relief projects and infrastructure support, in order not to damage the relationship with Israel prior to the crisis.
Based on these criteria, the AKP managed Turkey’s relations with Israel over the years until the relationship soured over several stages as stated above. Despite the fact that the Turkish government was not supportive of the idea of the Freedom Flotilla and its bid to break the GS siege in 2010, the raid on the ships that killed ten Turkish citizens (nine immediately, and one after months of treatment who died of his wounds) put Turkey in the position of defending the sovereignty of the country and its citizens.
Therefore, Turkey took a series of punitive measures against Israel, such as the withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, banning Israel’s participation in the Anatolian Eagle military exercise, canceling arms deals, including the purchase of Israel drones (UAVs), as well as the freezing of dozens of agreements in various fields with Tel Aviv.
Later, Turkey announced three conditions for restoring normal relations with Israel: Israel must apologize for the attack; pay compensations to the families of the victims; and lift the GS siege.
Bilateral meetings between the two sides to contain the crisis began early on. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met secretly with the then Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in Brussels on 1/7/2010, but meeting did not lead to a positive outcome .
Several failed meetings between officials of the two countries were held subsequently without reaching an agreement, due to Turkey’s insistence on its three conditions rejected by Israel. In 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Erdoğan, under pressure from US President Barack Obama, in March, but the other two conditions are yet to be met by Israel.
After this apology, several meetings were held between the two parties, including in Ankara in April and then in Jerusalem in May of 2013. Turkey and Israel reached a draft agreement but it has yet to be implemented.
Israel agreed in 2014 to compensate the victims’ families to the tune of $20 million, yet without implementing this. The two sides met again in June 2015, before the Israeli media leaked reports claiming an “agreement has already been reached” between the parties. The Turkish position appeared confused, with the Turkish officials making contradictory statements between acknowledging talks but denying a final agreement. Turkish officials also spoke about the Israeli people being a friend of the Turkish people while insisting on Turkey’s position on Israeli policies, expressed desire for rapprochement in the interest of “the two countries and the region,” and even boasted that Turkey is the first country to “compel Israel to apologize”. Other Turkish official statements also emphasized Ankara’s three conditions and used the wording “easing the blockade” instead of “removing the blockade.”
What sets the current negotiations apart is a number of favorable factors, some of which related to regional and international circumstances, others related to the position of each respective party or the context of previous talks:
• Turkey’s non objection in principle to restoring ties, which it has linked to practical conditions.
• The fact that both sides have been damaged by the severance of diplomatic relations. Turkey, according to regional pragmatic calculations, lost its ability to play an influential role in the Palestinian issue after its relations with both Tel Aviv and Cairo collapsed. Meanwhile, the Turkish veto has prevented Israel from taking part in some NATO activities, not to mention the fact that Israel lost the friendship of a key regional player at a time when the region is undergoing major socio-political transformations that remain in flux with uncertainty dominating the scene.
• The fact that the first two conditions have been largely fulfilled, with the talks now hinging on the third condition related to the GS siege.
• The desire of the two parties to restore relations and end tension and conflict.
• US pressure on its two strategic allies in the region to mend relations in light of regional instability.
• The conviction Israel now has of the futility of delaying the issue any further. Israel had wagered on the defeat of the AKP in the elections of November 2015, to weaken Turkey’s position in the negotiations. However, the elections restored the AKP’s majority and helped it form a strong majority government, forcing Netanyahu to activate the issue that has been frozen on his desk since 2014.
• Developments in the Syrian crisis that created common threats to both sides, led by the Islamic State group.
• Direct Russian military intervention in Syria since the end of September, posing threats to both sides regardless of close coordination between Russia and Israel.
• Iran’s growing influence in the region, especially in Syria, which both sides look at with suspicion especially after the nuclear deal was signed between Iran and the major powers, which is expected to increase Iran’s clout.
• Mutual need with regard to natural gas, following Russian economic sanctions on Turkey and the discovery of gas reserves in Palestinian and Lebanese waters that Israel is seeking to seize and exploit.
Turkey wants to reduce its reliance on Russian gas (55% of Turkey’s needs currently comes from Russia), while Israel wants a new market for “its gas” and a conduit for it to Europe.
• The relative political isolation experienced by Turkey in the region, and repeated calls from officials in the government and ruling party to review foreign policy and correct its course, in an attempt to reduce liabilities with a number of countries in the region.
• The support shown by an important part of Turkish opposition (e.g., Republican People’s Party—CHP, Democratic People’s Party—DEHAP) to amend Turkey’s foreign policy, especially in regarding the relationship with Israel.
• Turkey’s desire to win the support of the Jews in Russia to rein in Putin’s sanctions and antagonism against Turkey.
• Ankara’s preoccupation with the military escalation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—PKK since July 2015, and its desire to focus on settling this conflict and neutralizing external factors in this regard.
• Turkish fears of an accelerating Syrian Kurds project on its southern border, which Ankara considers a red line in its national security standards, not to mention the ties that bind Kurds to Israel in terms of political support and armament. Turkey hopes to limit the ambition of the Democratic Union Party—PYD (Syrian Kurdish) for the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria stretching from the borders of Iraq to the Mediterranean, through rapprochement with Tel Aviv.
• Turkey’s desire to score a political achievement through contributing to easing the GS blockade, as proximity talks between Israel and Hamas for cementing the truce hit an impasse, which could boost Turkey’s role in the Palestinian issue.
• Economic and trade relations between the two countries developed steadily since 2010 (and even since the AKP took over in 2002) despite the diplomatic crisis, and both sides want to increase trade, which means political rapprochement is invaluable to achieving this. Trade between Ankara and Tel Aviv since 2010, the year the Mavi Marmara incident occurred, increased by 69.5% until 2014 ($3.44 billion in 2010 to $5.832 billion in 2014).
On the other hand, several obstacles hinder current talks as before, including:
• Israel refused to completely lift the GS blockade, because it believes this would boost resistance factions there.
• Turkey cannot fully waive its condition regarding lifting the blockade, not the least because this would undermine its reputation in the region and in Palestine, and embarrass it vis-à-vis the Turkish public opinion at home.
• Turkish public opposition to an agreement with Israel, and an opposition by the Turkish aid Group IHH that was behind the Mavi Marmara, particularly since leaked reports state that Turkey intends to withdraw legal cases against Israeli leaders filed in Turkey.
• Bickering in the media between the two sides during the estrangement, which widened the gap, especially at the personal level between Erdoğan and Netanyahu.
• The many signals and statements coming from Tel Aviv cheering the setback of the AKP in the elections of June 2015, which Israel saw as a prelude to Hamas losing one of its key regional backers
• Turkish accusations against Israel of targeting Turkey though the Kurdish card in Turkey and Syria, and reports of collaboration between Fethullah Gülen’s movement accused of establishing a secret organization to seize power in Turkey and Tel Aviv.
• Decline in Turkey’s need for Israel in the areas of defense industries and arms imports, having diversified its sources of imported weapons, as well as the important strides made by local arms industries.
• The absence of an internal Israeli consensus on reconciliation with Turkey, and the difficulty Netanyahu faces in selling an agreement with Ankara to his partners in the right-wing coalition government.
• Failure of previous rounds of talks, and the emergence of a state of mistrust on both sides about the intentions of the other party.
• Egypt’s reservation on the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, according to Israeli press reports, and the unwillingness of Tel Aviv to raise the ire of Cairo for an uncertain agreement with Ankara.
• Turkey’s attitudes vis-à-vis the Arab revolutions and other regional issues that have not changed in their general features, and are still inconsistent with the vision and interests of Tel Aviv.
• Israel knows that any agreement to restore relations with Turkey does not guarantee necessarily scaling back the relationship between the latter and Hamas. An impression fueled by some of the messages included in the last call made by the Head of Hamas Political Bureau, Khalid Mish‘al, at the height of talk about upcoming reconciliation between Turkey and Israel.
Given all of the above, it may seem that the theoretical possibilities for the form of bilateral relations between the two sides are many and varied, while some scenarios can be excluded. This paper does not see normalization between the two sides occurring with one party offering full concessions to the other (complete removal of the blockade or complete abandonment of this condition). At the same time, it is unlikely relations between the two sides would sour to the point that negotiations would fully collapse or the situation remaining the same without prospect for a solution on the horizon. Therefore, this paper focuses on two main possible scenarios:
First Scenario: Some kind of agreement is reached between the two sides, bridging the gap between them and restoring diplomatic ties to their previous status. In our view, this is the more likely scenario if the current regional and international climate remains the same, regardless of whether it materializes in the near or long term. According to this scenario, the two countries’ negotiating delegations would reach a compromise between full lifting of the blockade and abandoning this condition, without affecting Israel’s red lines concerning empowering Palestinian resistance factions, while also not denying Turkey the ability to market it as a breaking or easing of the years-long blockade of Gaza.
This compromise could take the form of a Turkish or international marine route to GS to bring in basic supplies under international supervision, or a “special status” given to Turkish ships and aid groups to enter GS, in addition to facilitating reconstruction. This means that the agreement would be acceptable to Egypt or would be part of a broad regional agreement (including improving Turkish-Egyptian relations). However, this scenario does not necessarily mean restoring Turkish-Israeli ties to a state of strategic alliance as was the case in the 1990s. Indeed, the extent of changes is dramatic for both sides of the equation: neither Turkey is the same nor its need for Israel are the same. It is hard to imagine the return of intelligence cooperation, for example, between the two sides, to the state of subservience that Turkey was in, in the past. More likely in this context is the return of diplomatic representation and the development of economic ties in trade and tourism, as well as cooperation in the framework of international organizations such as NATO on issues of mutual interest, while each side maintains its vision, priorities and even concerns vis-à-vis the other side.
Finally, it is unlikely for this scenario to have disastrous implications on the Palestinian side, particularly Hamas. To be sure, the relationship between Turkey and Hamas is not fully built on the basis of Turkish-Israeli differences, which means a 180 degree turn in the Turkish position is unlikely in the event ties with Israel are restored. The Turkish-Palestinian and Turkey-Hamas relations follow specific criteria and determinants, including historical, political, religious, and interest-based ones, and cannot be overturned just because of the restoration of relations with Israel.
Second Scenario: Failure of the talks between the two sides: Pending local or regional developments that would force the two sides to sit at the table once again, with better odds for success than the current round. This scenario is less likely than the previous one, and would mean that the many of the favorable factors mentioned are not enough for the two sides to overcome the obstacles along the way, or that joint threats are not strong enough for them to overcome their mutual mistrust, or that the internal situation for each side that favors the status quo is stronger than regional catalysts for rapprochement.
Accordingly, the current situation would remain the same under this scenario: A readiness in principle by both sides to engage in reconciliation and end the estrangement, with Turkish conditions remaining in place even though they appear more flexible today than before, amid an Israeli readiness for any solution that can be marketed at home as something that does not “break” the GS siege to empower the “terrorists.”
Yet the failure of this round does not mean that the two sides would return to square one. The contexts detailed above, in addition to the two sides’ agreement on the issues related to them directly (the blockade of Gaza concerns a third party after all), as well as the joint threats, are all factors that mean minimum cooperation between the two would continue regardless of their diplomatic crisis. This is not to mention the fact that economic ties continue to develop and will develop further after the positive climates emerging recently between them.
Finally, postponing an agreement because of the failure of this round of the talks does not mean that Ankara will continue to bypass some aspects of its relations with Palestinian sides such as that with Hamas, nor that the privileges Hamas has cannot be overturned. The desire of Turkey and Israel to improve relations requires confidence-building measures by both sides, which could force Hamas to pay a price. In addition, relations between Ankara and Hamas brings pressure to Turkey from its allies led by the US. In truth, some of these measures have already taken place, with some Hamas leaders leaving Turkey after the elections of June 2015.
After more than five years of estrangement between Turkey and Israel, the two sides appear more than ever closer to bridging the gap between them and normalizing ties, affected by local and regional contexts and factors. The positive climate expressed by the two sides, especially Turkey, reflects the progress in the negotiations as well as the desire and need of both sides for reconciliation.
While this paper believes the more likely scenario is normalizing ties and restoring diplomatic representation between Israel and Turkey, the extent of changes especially in Turkey suggests the old strategic alliance is unlikely to be renewed, and an agreement now is more about necessity in light of emerging circumstances. Furthermore, the lack of agreement on all the details does not mean an agreement is not close, and it may mean that it needs more time to mature in light of changes on both sides of the negotiations table.
In all cases, whether we see an agreement that restores ties between the two sides or this is postponed for a while, a bare minimum level of cooperation is no doubt in place thanks to the fact that both sides are part of the same umbrella on some regional issues. Indeed, Turkey of 2016 is not that of 2011.
1. Strengthening the Turkish position regarding lifting the GS siege in a way that would prevent any attempts to make this demand symbolical and insubstantial;
2. Strengthening Palestinian-Turkish relations to empower the Turkish position in the face of Israeli and US pressures.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Said al-Haj for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.