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Doubts about the stability of normalisation between Israel and Turkiye 

August 22, 2022 at 9:17 am

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (L) and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a press conference in Ankara, on March 9, 2022 [STR/AFP via Getty Images]

As soon as Turkiye and Israel announced the return to full diplomatic relations following 20 years of tensions, Israelis began looking into causes of what they described as a sudden shift in Turkish relations with Tel Aviv. They’re trying to anticipate the future of this development which coincides with many regional and international developments including the Ukrainian war, the Iran nuclear deal and the imminent energy crisis in Europe, all of which have Tel Aviv and Ankara in common.

Announcing restoring full diplomatic relations, and the return of ambassadors and consuls with full diplomatic representation was followed by a call between Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite the Israeli conviction that the latter “has not completely changed”.

Israeli political and security leaders have not forgotten Erdogan’s accusations that Israel has committing genocide against the Palestinians, followed by his famous violent confrontation with Shimon Peres in Davos, the attack on the Mari Marmara flotilla and the harsh verbal attacks in between. Despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to Erdogan in 2013, and the signing of an agreement in 2016 to compensate the victims of the Mavi Marmara, Turkish hostility towards Israel continued. In 2020, Erdogan attacked the normalisation agreements with Arab countries and only a week ago he accused Israel of killing children in the Gaza Strip during the recent aggression.

The recent announcement of resuming Turkish-Israeli relations was not surprising. It was preceded by a diplomatic marathon behind the scenes, which reached its peak during the visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Ankara. Herzog is the one who promoted normalisation with the Turks, in cooperation with then Foreign Minister Yair Lapid who had also visited Turkiye, although Lapid himself had opposed the reconciliation agreement that Netanyahu signed with Erdogan.

READ: Flights for West Bank Palestinians to Turkey to start at end of August

Israeli security interests do not seem far from reconciling with Turkiye, especially the future of its hosting of Hamas leadership and cadres, not to mention the recent efforts made by Turkish security services to prevent an Iranian attack against Israeli tourists on its soil. Turkish-Israeli intelligence cooperation appeared at its highest levels, which may have contributed to shortening the road to a full normalisation of relations.

At the same time, the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation can be linked with what the latter describes as the Iranian threat, although Erdogan, just weeks after preventing the Iranian attempt to carry out attacks against Israelis in his country, travelled to Tehran, and met with his Iranian and Russian counterparts Ibrahim Raisi and Vladimir Putin, a matter that set off warning lights in Tel Aviv about the consequences of this sudden meeting.

Israelis consider that the most important turning point in the resumption of Turkish-Israeli relations lies in the economic aspect, especially if Israel decides to move the gas pipeline to Europe via Turkiye, or through the maritime areas under its control. This idea, however, is not fully supported by Israeli security leaders who believe they have good reasons not to make such a mistake, as they do not trust Turkiye. Ankara keeps inciting Israeli allies in Greece and Cyprus, thus, reconciling with Turkiye may pave the way to calm tensions Ankara has with Athens and Nicosia, in preparation for strengthening ties.

Although Israel welcomed the full resumption of relations with Turkiye, including exchange of ambassadors and the return of flights, some diplomatic and political circles in Tel Aviv warned that this welcome was premature and exaggerated. Normalising relations with Ankara may not last long, in light of the continued mutual suspicions, and the fact that the two parties reached it because they both are in need of immediate reconciliation, not because they turned into two allies that trust one another, especially with the continuing challenges they face.

Israelis see that Turkiye is the one who started the steps of normalisation, and showed a great motive to promote it. However, the recollection of the tension with Erdogan, and his numerous hostile statements against them, tempered their enthusiasm, and even raised their doubts about his motives today, and caused this cautious progress towards Ankara to slow down.

READ: Israel, Turkiye announce normalisation agreement, return of ambassadors

Ankara and Tel Aviv succeeded in building a relationship that enabled bilateral dialogue even in times of crisis, and that was clear in the cooperation between their security services against Iran’s attempts to assassinate Israeli tourists in Turkiye. This has further strengthened the security relationship between them and accelerated the renewal of relationships, leading to approving Ankara’s request to strengthen official relations between them, and for the first time, Israeli airlines are able to fly to Ankara since 2009.

Despite this development of bilateral relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv, there are a number of regional challenges that face them, and may stand in the way of the full normalisation of relations, especially since this rapprochement coincides with the presence of a Turkish delegation in Washington for discussions regarding the purchase of F-16 fighter jets. Although the US administration supports the deal, there is large opposition in Congress due to the rapprochement between Turkiye and Russia in recent years.

Another challenge facing Tel Aviv and Ankara is that the latter is an important trading partner for Israel, where the volume of trade exchange is $8 billion. This highlights the need to update the free trade agreement signed between the two countries in 1996, which forms the basis of bilateral trade relations but is no longer compatible with some of the current economic needs.

Another issue that may contribute to curbing this rapprochement in relations is that any military deterioration between the occupation and the Palestinians may cause a re-exchange of accusations between Ankara and Tel Aviv, which has been seen at times of Israeli aggression on Gaza between 2008-2022. In such a scenatrio, things may go back to the usual state of tension.

The upcoming Israeli elections in November and in Turkiye in June 2023 also pose a challenge. These could lead to a scenario where both sides give a higher priority to internal matters rather than external issues in a way that would harm bilateral relations. In addition, Israeli elections could lead to the return of Netanyahu, who is a stubborn opponent of Erdogan. This could lead relations to regress.

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