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Israel is hesitant about rapprochement with Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a protest rally in Istanbul on 18 May 2018, against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem. [OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a protest rally in Istanbul on 18 May 2018, against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem. [OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images]

Ongoing developments between Turkey and Israel following recent phone calls between their leaders, and the announcement that the Israeli president will visit Ankara soon, make it urgent to discuss the feelings within the occupation state about rapprochement with the Turks. We need to understand the nature of the Israeli actors and their impact on the possibility of such a thaw in relations, as opposed to them remaining limited to media-based conversations. This will help to unravel the motives of each side's security and political parties.

Israelis generally know that it was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who took the initiative to improve bilateral relations with next year's presidential election in mind, which he wants to win at all costs, even if that includes backing down on his previous position of attacking Israel in international forums. Erdogan also wishes to restore his relations with Washington, which Israel knows are not at their best. Turkey understands that one route to Washington goes through Tel Aviv.

Economic links between Turkey and Israel remain relatively active, despite unchanged tourism indicators and tense political relations. Importantly, Erdogan wants a return to the "zero problems" policy pursued by his former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu. This is evident in the normalisation of his relations not only with Israel, but also with Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Israel-Turkey rapprochement is being met by a number of apparently varied positions within political and security circles in Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Naftali, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gant, do not generally express their positions clearly. On a few occasions, though, Bennett has welcomed the restoration of relations with Turkey, albeit without much enthusiasm, and Lapid has spoken with his counterpart in Ankara, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The Israeli government has thus let President Isaac Herzog take the lead, and he has had three telephone conversations with Erdogan within the past six months. The president of Israel is a ceremonial position with no political role or powers, but the incumbent is used occasionally for official tasks. For example, Herzog has contacted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, none of which could have happened without Bennett's approval.

READ: Turkey and Israel seek to normalise relations despite mutual concerns

Erdogan has what can be described as "personal chemistry" with Herzog, not least because he belongs to the centre-left in Israel. He displays no overt aggression towards the Turks or, indeed, the Palestinians. Hence, Turkey views him as an acceptable interlocutor.

To date, the Israeli government has met Turkey's moves with positive responses, but still below Ankara's expectations. It seems as if Israel is content to move from "stalemate" to "cold" without moving on to "warm". Perhaps the appropriate conditions are not in place, or it believes that Erdogan is seeking rapprochement for tactical reasons and not as part of a strategic change in the relationship; Israel also believes that the Turkish president has shifting political positions.

Protesters wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a demonstration against Israel in front of the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, late on 11 May 2021. [OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images]

Protesters wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a demonstration against Israel in front of the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, late on 11 May 2021. [OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images]

The real indicator may be at a security and military level. Israeli security and military officials want to rein in any impulsive political moves towards Turkey, and are trying to assess the reaction of their Turkish counterparts towards a number of demands that were made, especially those related to Ankara's position on Hamas and the movement's presence in Turkey.

Perhaps Israel is not rushing its relations with Turkey so as not to anger its allies in the Mediterranean, especially Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, none of which have warm relations with Ankara. Any rapprochement with Turkey will not be at the cost of Israel's links with them.

READ: Erdogan tells visiting rabbis Turkey's ties with Israel 'will always be strong'

Moreover, there is no consensus between Israeli security officials and politicians about the future of rapprochement with Turkey. Hence, we can only speculate about what the immediate future might hold, including Herzog's visit to Ankara. There is likely to be a pause in Turkey's public hostility towards Israel regarding the situation on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories. This may not hold true if the situation deteriorates, though, whether in the form of a military offensive against Gaza, or an increase in settler attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque. There is also likely to be an increase in off the record communications between security officials in Tel Aviv and Ankara.

Herzog's visit has been postponed until mid-March, and will be purely ceremonial. Although no agreements or deals will be signed, it will open the door for Turkish moves in the opposite direction. It will set the stage for the return of ambassadors to the respective capitals, and perhaps — just perhaps — lead to a reciprocal visit by the Turkish president to Tel Aviv, similar to his visits to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

None of this means that the Turkish-Israeli relationship is on a path of gradual and inevitable rapprochement. The Israeli slowdown may provoke the Turks, and send it back to where it was, despite positive attitudes on both sides, although these may yet jump-start the whole process. Nevertheless, Ankara may be initiating and seeking improved relations, but Israel remains hesitant.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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