By: Dr. Said El-Haj.
(Exclusively for al-Zaytouna Centre).
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the appointment of the Chargé d’Affaires in Ankara, Irit Lillian, as Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, which is the latest step in a series, to normalize relations and as a rapprochement between the two sides. Turkish Foreign Minister also announced the appointment of the former consul in Jerusalem, Şakir Özkan Torunlar, as his country’s ambassador to Israel.
This paper examines the reasons that prompted Turkey to improve its relations with Israel and compares this step with its predecessors. It concludes that the most likely scenario in the short and medium term is the continuation of these relations as per the desire of the Turkish and Israeli sides. Turkey will apparently tune down its criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinian people and land, and may ask the resistance forces (particularly Hamas) to reduce their presence and visibility in Turkey. The paper rules out the possibility of developing the relations at a strategic level, as was the case in the 1990s. A number of internal, regional and international factors as well as the developments of the Palestine issue will be key factors in determining the level of relations.
The tension of the Turkey-Israel relations began during the term of the Justice and Development Party (AKP); during the Israeli aggression on Gaza Strip (GS) in 2008, and in 2009 with the Davos Forum incident, then due to the “low chair” crisis in the same year. In 2010, relations degraded further following the Israeli attack on Mavi Marmara ship carrying aid to GS.
In 2016, relations were restored with the normalization agreement, but not as they used to be, going through ebbs and flows until May 2018, when there was semi-rupture in relations. For due to the Israeli aggression on the Marches of Return as well as the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel and declared the latter’s ambassador persona non grata.
However, the last two years have seen several developments, where there has been a shift in Turkey’s foreign policy and regional relations. It wanted to restore its relations with Israel, which began with a phone call between the Turkish President and his Israeli counterpart, followed by a series of measures, the most recent of which was the appointment of ambassadors.
For nearly two years, Turkey has been seeking to mitigate disagreements and polarization, opening channels with a number of regional parties, who were opposed to Ankara during the past decade (2010–2019), namely Egypt, the UAE and KSA. In 2016, Turkey had sought a similar approach with the government of Binali Yıldırım, which embraced the slogan of “earning more friends than enemies,” but did not receive a response at the time from the other parties except in a limited and temporary manner.
However, as of the end of 2020, the desire became mutual, and a state of calm was witnessed between Turkey and these countries, leading to dialogue and, in rare cases, coordination and cooperation, as in the Libyan file, for example.
The biggest shift Ankara witnessed was with Abu Dhabi. After the two sides were on completely opposite sides and in a state of declared hostility for many years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Prince Muhammad bin Zayed, in Ankara, on 24/11/2021, with remarkable hospitability. The two sides signed several memoranda of understanding, and the UAE promised to invest billions of US dollars in Turkey.
Erdoğan also received Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with official ceremony on 22/6/2022, and visited both the UAE and Saudi Arabia and met their officials, in a clear indication of a new phase in relations.
With Egypt, the strained relations developed at the intelligence services level, then at the diplomatic level. Despite the goodwill measures, relations have been proceeding slowly due primarily to Egyptian considerations and conditions, and to regional alignments.
This approach, which resembles the previous “zero problems” policy in form and differs in content and details, can be due to several reasons, the most important of which are:
1. The US factor: The Joe Biden administration wanted to reduce American focus on the region’s issues and crises, and leave their handling to regional allies, hence the tension between them may be reduced. This approach had a significant impact on a number of US regional allies, most notably Turkey.
2. Economy: The economies of regional countries are weakening, albeit to varying degrees, for internal and external reasons, foremost of which are the global crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
3. Polarization: The past few years saw a decline in the importance of contentious files that caused polarization between various regional powers, particularly the Arab revolutions, the coup in Egypt and the blockade of Qatar.
4. Exhaustion: Over the past years, the various regional powers have been in direct and indirect confrontation, without any of them being able to defeat the other. This has led to their exhaustion without achieving clear goals.
5. Elections: For Turkey, the presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023 are a priority for President Erdoğan, who seeks to organize them while living the best conditions. Therefore, he has been addressing foreign policy files in a way that would relieve pressure on Ankara and attract foreign investments.
6. Investment (reaping the fruits): In the past few years, Turkey has made breakthroughs in some important files and regional conflicts such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and the South Caucasus. Then, it sought political gains from them, which requires relative regional calm.
Some of the reasons for the development of relations between Turkey and Israel, and the normalization of its relations with the aforementioned Arab countries, in addition to Greece and Armenia, may be the same, nonetheless, they are different in several aspects. Turkey’s dispute with Israel is mainly related to the Palestine issue, the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the Judaization policies and the repeated attacks on GS and the West Bank (WB). However, Ankara understands that improving its relations with Israel would improve relations with the US and alleviate the pressure of the Israel lobby against Turkey.
As Turkey was trying to dialogue and have calm with a number of regional parties, it has repeatedly expressed its desire to do the same with Israel. Yet, Israel was not enthusiastic and considered it just a tactical maneuver by Erdoğan to improve his chances in the upcoming elections.
Among the first steps was a phone call between Erdoğan and the Israeli President Isaac Herzog, in November 2021. This was followed by other calls, including Erdoğan’s condolences to Herzog over the death of his mother, and a solidarity call, on 1/4/2022, to condemn the attack of Palestinian resistance in Tel Aviv, which he described as “terror attack,” offering his condolences. There were also phone calls with both Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid during their tenure as prime ministers, before Erdoğan meeting Lapid on the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022.
During this period, Turkish and Israeli intelligence forces came together to foil an assassination attempt of Israeli-Turkish businessman Yair Geller—an Istanbul-based tycoon with investments in the machine and defense industries—in response to assassinations carried out by the Mossad inside Iran. Turkey repeatedly thwarted Iranian-led operations on its soil during 2022, and detained an Iranian cell that was planning to assassinate Israelis.
Communication reached a peak with the visit of the Israeli President Herzog to Turkey in March 2022, when he was received with great hospitality. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also visited Israel in May 2022, which was considered a prelude and preparation for a visit Erdoğan might make to Tel Aviv before the end of the year. In June 2022, Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid visited Ankara and discussed with his Turkish counterpart bilateral relations. The two agreed to restore full diplomatic relations, then came the agreement on the exchange of ambassadors. Israel announced the name of its ambassador, who is the former Chargé d’Affaires at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara, Irit Lillian. Then, the appointment of a Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv came as part of appointments in the Turkish diplomatic corps in October 2022, whom the former consul in Jerusalem, Şakir Özkan Torunlar, was chosen for the position.
On 27/10/2022, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Ankara and met with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, first by an Israeli defense minister in over a decade, indicating the return of security and military cooperation. The Turkish minister said that “increasing our bilateral cooperation and dialogue will also facilitate the resolution of some issues on which we have disagreements, particularly Palestine,” adding that “cooperation with Israel, especially in areas such as defense, security and energy, will lead to important developments regarding regional peace and stability.” In an unplanned step, Erdoğan received the Israeli minister Benny Gantz with his Turkish counterpart, which was viewed as Turkish interest in the visit at the presidential level and a message to Israel and the US.
In addition to inter-relationships and regional files, Israeli media mentioned that Gantz would talk to Turkish officials regarding the hosting of senior Hamas officials in Turkey, asking for an end to this matter.
What is Different?
This is not the first-time relations between Turkey and Israel are restored after decline, as the course of their relation has been fluctuating since 1949. The period of AKP rule in Turkey was no exception in this regard, as diplomatic relations between the two sides were severed following the Israeli attack on Mavi Marmamra in 2010, then returned in 2016, but deteriorated again in 2018 due to the killing of dozens of Palestinians in the Marches of Return in GS by Israeli forces, besides the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.
However, the restoration of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel this time is different from the previous times in several aspects, notably:
1. The development of relations with Israel is not a single incident, but rather a part of a policy where Ankara is improving its relations with a number of regional parties, such as Egypt, KSA, the UAE, Bahrain, and even Greece and Armenia, and for reasons exceeding direct relations with Israel or the developments of the Palestine issue.
2. The return of diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors came during an Israeli unstable period amidst new early elections, the fifth in the last three years. This suggests that Turkey is not very interested in the shape or orientations of the next Israeli government, or that it is trying to anticipate any change in the government, or both.
3. At the same time of restoring relations, there were repeated attacks against the Palestinians, specifically in GS. In August 2022, Israel launched an attack against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement (PIJ) which it dubbed as Operation Breaking Dawn (dubbed by the PIJ the Battle of Unity of the Arenas). Prior to that, in 2021, Israel launched what it called Operation Guardian of the Walls (dubbed by the Palestinian resistance the Battle of Sword of Jerusalem). This is significant in terms of the extent to which Turkey’s relations with Israel are linked to the latter’s policies towards the Palestinians.
4. Also, the return of relations between Turkey and Israel came after the Abraham Accords between Israel and a number of Arab countries, which Ankara denounced and said that these countries are “betraying the Palestinian cause to serve its narrow interests.”
5. Relations between Ankara and Israel returned this time without the latter responding to the five Turkish conditions announced by Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, foremost among them were to stop attacks against Palestinians, return to the “peace” process and “give up policies that corrode the status of Jerusalem.” This is in contrast to the reconciliation deal in 2016, when Israel responded to the three Turkish conditions at the time, albeit to varying degrees. In addition, Ankara did not respond to the Israeli conditions or demands related to its relations with Hamas, in particular.
In light of the foregoing, Turkish-Israeli relations face one of two possibilities in the short and medium term:
First: The return of diplomatic boycott. This is a scenario which might gain momentum due to the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset elections and/or Israel’s policies against the Palestinians. Yet, we consider it a weak and unlikely possibility. Furthermore, nothing was issued by Netanyahu stating that he was against restoring diplomatic relations with Ankara or that he would back down from the announced agreement.
The Turkish government has previously held Netanyahu’s government responsible for the decline in relations; therefore, his descent from power after the 2021 elections helped develop relations. Moreover, Ankara might not be happy with Netanyahu’s return to power and prefer the rival coalition as indicated in Erdoğan’s reception of Gantz days before the elections. Therefore, the Turkish and Israeli sides anticipated the elections by appointing ambassador appointments, however, Netanyahu has no strong reason to go back on them.
Most importantly, Netanyahu returns to power amid circumstances completely different from those prevailing when he previously led the government. The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war does not leave many maneuvering spaces for the allies of US, notably for Israel, and although Netanyahu enjoyed friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the continuation of relations at the same level does not seem possible, including relations with Turkey.
Moreover, it seems that Israel’s policies against the Palestinians will not be an obstacle to the development of relations or a reason for the return of boycott. First, relations were restored and ambassadors were appointed despite the clear Israeli policies towards Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque, and despite two major aggressions against GS in 2021 and 2022, as well as the continued Israeli violations in WB. In addition, top Turkish officials have stated that they would separate between their relations with Israel and the latter’s policies towards the Palestinians. Therefore, and in the absence of any exceptional developments in the Palestine issue, it is not expected that the usual and continuous Israeli policies, despite their harshness, will lead to a decline in diplomatic relations or the withdrawal of ambassadors, as happened previously.
Second: The development of relations would continue, and this is the most likely scenario in the foreseeable future. For there is clear Turkish and Israeli desire to develop them, and clear difference between this return of relations and the previous ones, indicating that matters would withstand and continue. In addition, the international and regional conditions related to the Russian-Ukrainian war, and Turkey’s tendency not to escalate matters with Israel before the elections in mid-2023, are all in this scenario’s favor.
Conclusion and Recommendations
In conclusion, Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel comes within a broader context, where there is a change in Turkish foreign policy as a whole. The two sides have reached the point of exchanging ambassadors despite all the obstacles, most importantly the mutual preconditions they imposed. Likewise, developing relations with Israel does not face real internal Turkish opposition, whether at the popular or partisan level. Reserved stances are limited to certain segments, namely those interested in the issue of Mavi Marmara and some conservatives. For the restoration of relations is promoted as a form of Turkish national interest related to energy security.
The above indicates that Ankara is interested in developing relations with Israel, steps included taking the initiative to communicate and showing persistence, Erdoğan’s meeting with Gantz although with no prior arrangement, and the many stages that relations have gone through in the past few months.
The choice of the Turkish ambassador leads to the same end. For in addition to the rich biography of the new ambassador Şakir Özkan Torunlar, his previous work as deputy director general for the Middle East Department and deputy director general for security affairs, all at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and his membership in the Foreign Policy Advisory Board, in addition to his work as consul general in Jerusalem and ambassador to Palestine throughout 2010–2014, indicate the extent of Ankara’s interest in the matter from many angles.
Therefore, the Israel-Turkey relations may deepen further, where some circles are even talking about the possibility of Erdoğan visiting Israel in the near future.
One of the most important questions usually raised about Turkish-Israeli relations is their negative impact on the Palestine issue, which Turkish officials deny, rather they stress that these relations would boost the Turkish role in supporting the Palestinians.
No radical change is expected in Turkey’s position on the Palestine issue, as it calls for a two-state solution, which is approved by the Israelis. Turkey may take an initiative concerning the PA-Israel talks or concerning a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and the resistance.
Despite this, the restoration of Israel-Turkey relations whilst there are repeated Israeli attacks on GS and WB is a tangible change regarding the Palestine issue and not a marginal one. It indicates that Turkey is differentiating between its relations with Israel and the latter’s practices against the Palestinians, a matter confirmed by some Turkish officials.
As for Turkey’s relations with the Palestinian resistance movements, especially Hamas, this is a matter which should be monitored carefully in the coming period. For Israel has made it at the top of its conditions for relation improvement, and was expressed by Israeli officials who recently visited Turkey.
This requires the Palestinian factions to deal with the new circumstance aptly, including reducing their presence in Turkey, and avoiding any policies or statements that Israel may exploit to incite against their presence there. For Israel is exploiting Ankara’s desire not to disturb the rapprochement and thus reiterating its demands to expel Hamas leaders.
Also, the resistance forces should work in the long term to find alternative locations, and not just the countries they are currently in, including Turkey. However, the most important strategic path that should be pursued is to emphasize the commonalities with Turkey in the sense that Israel, as a manifestation of the Zionist project, is a threat to the entire region, including Turkey, which makes the Palestinian resistance the first line of defense, not only for Palestine and the Arab world, but also for Turkey itself.
In conclusion, while it is unlikely that relations between Turkey and Israel will return to the strategic alliance of the 1990s, it is also difficult to expect them to remain in the minimum level and in the state of non-enmity that prevailed during 2016–2018. For the Russian-Ukrainian war and the Iranian factor, besides inter-relations, might prompt deeper relations between the two sides. However, the level that this bilateral relation can reach is also unclear, as it will be affected by all of the aforementioned factors, in addition to the developments of the Palestine issue and any unexpected events in the region.