In recent weeks, relations between Turkey and Israel have thawed slightly, despite hostile statements by their leaders. Decision-makers in both countries are trying to bring the relationship out of the depths through the media as well as political and security channels.
Behind the serious consideration of normalising their relations probably lies their belief that bilateral relations are important to the security and stability of the region. They also believe that differences can be minimised if there is mutual understanding on bilateral and regional issues. This remains the case even though they have had no significant diplomatic relations since 2018, following Turkey's protests about moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem, and the brutal Israeli response to the Great March of Return demonstrations along the nominal border in the Gaza Strip. Ankara recalled its ambassador and ordered the Israeli ambassador to return to Tel Aviv. In December 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he was interested in improving relations with Israel, but stressed that the Palestinian issue is a red line for him.
As the respective ambassadors were returning to Ankara and Tel Aviv, the latest Israeli aggression against the Palestinians in Gaza erupted in May last year, and Erdogan issued a series of anti-Israel messages. In June, however, the first conversation took place between Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart, Isaac Herzog, and Turkey sent a cultural attaché to Israel for the first time in a decade. The latter responded hesitantly, as it was not clear to what extent there was a Turkish desire to turn the page in their relations, and whether this was merely an attempt to sabotage the close relationship between Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
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The thaw in relations should be viewed in the context of Israel's efforts to normalise relations across the Middle East. Turkey is doing the same. To date there have been two rounds of talks with Egypt to prepare for the return of ambassadors to Ankara and Cairo. There is even an interesting development in the restoration of relations with the UAE, despite Ankara believing that Abu Dhabi was instrumental in the 2016 failed coup attempt.
Despite the deterioration of Israeli-Turkish political relations over the past decade, economic links have grown, with two-thirds of the trade between them made up of exports from Turkey to Israel. In 2019, half a million Israeli tourists visited Turkey, a number similar to that recorded before the 2010 Israeli hijacking of the Mavi Marmara and the rest of the Freedom Flotilla heading to Gaza with humanitarian aid. The importance and value of Israeli relations increased during the Turkish economic downturn. Israel believed that economic links could be the basis for improved relations with Turkey.
Both Turkey and Israel have close relations with Azerbaijan. For Israel, Azerbaijan is a strategic ally in the cold war against Iran, and an important energy supplier. In the autumn of 2020, when Azerbaijan used Israeli and Turkish weapons to defeat Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, it was where Israel and Turkey cooperated indirectly.
Nevertheless, there are still many points of friction between Ankara and Tel Aviv, including Turkey's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as its activities in East Jerusalem, where it funds the restoration of historical sites and the opening of cultural institutions. In response, Israel is supporting Greece and Cyprus, which bothers Turkey with regard to critical security issues in the eastern Mediterranean and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This places obstacles in the way of a real improvement in relations with Israel.
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Moreover, Ankara's condemnation of last year's Israeli aggression against Gaza was a reminder of the fragility of its relationship with the occupation state, because Erdogan takes every possible opportunity to mention the importance of the Palestinian issue. Hence, any escalation in occupied Palestine may damage the links between Ankara and Tel Aviv. It must also be taken into account that Turkish politics is generally unanimous in opposition to Israel, perhaps because the political influence of the Turkish armed forces has been weakened. The army was once an important pro-Israel factor.
In 2016, when the Mavi Marmara crisis came to an end, Israel found it necessary to transport natural gas via Turkey to Europe. This didn't help its relations with Greece, but in any case Israeli diplomats felt that it was better for Israel to emphasise the benefits of restoring relations with Turkey, leading to the exchange of ambassadors, strengthening strategic dialogue with Syria and Iran, raising the level of trade and tourism, expanding political and civil cooperation, and seeking Turkish assistance to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
At a time when messages continue to be exchanged between Turkey and Israel, however, there remain some in the occupation state who believe that this rapprochement should not be at the expense of Israel-Greece-Cyprus triangular relations. This alliance allows Israel to explore for gas more widely in the eastern Mediterranean. This has the potential for even greater profit and increased political influence for Tel Aviv with Turkey's neighbours.
Will Herzog accept Erdogan's invitation to visit Turkey? And does the Turkish leader's recent meeting with Jewish rabbis send positive signals about the development of relations with Israel? We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, Israelis are trying to decide whether Turkey under Erdogan has changed its view of Israel for strategic purposes, or whether it is merely repositioning itself tactically.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.