As US power wanes, Turkey and Israel are scrambling to maintain West Asian dominance, even if that means allying with partners they didn’t trust yesterday.
Last Friday, ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog and “sharply condemned” Palestinian attacks that have killed 11 Israelis over the past two weeks.
On board a flight back from the NATO summit in Brussels the week before, Erdogan hinted to reporters about potential surprises ahead in East Mediterranean energy cooperation between the two countries: “When you hear that [cooperation] you’ll say ‘Where did this come from?’”
The Turkish president’s comments are yet another sign that relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv are set to be restored and bolstered after more than a decade of strained ties and public spats.
Erdogan’s famous “one minute” dressing-down of then-prime minister Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos Forum, and the Israeli killings of nine humanitarian activists aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship the following year, caused an unprecedented rupture in Israeli-Turkish political relations.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) support for Hamas, in particular, and Ankara’s regional championing of the Palestinian issue, in general, had irked Israel for a long time. But in 2013, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkey for the Gaza flotilla incident, and in 2016, Tel Aviv paid $20 million in compensation to the families of the victims.
Reconciliation progress was stymied yet again when Ankara condemned former US president Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, and Israel’s aggressions in the 2018 Gaza War. Despite these setbacks, it appeared that there was still interest in warming up Israel-Turkey relations.
Opportunities after US disengagement
‘Pivot to Asia’ has been a distinctive US strategy since the administration of former president Barack Obama. The anticipated US disengagement from West Asia has made US allies anxious about unchecked ‘Iranian influence’ growing in the region. Pro-AKP figures in Turkey have evaluated the pros and cons accordingly, with three main oft-repeated reasons for Ankara’s intensive efforts to mend ties with Tel Aviv:
First are the claims that – sans the US – Turkey is essential to containing Iran. Burhanettin Duran, general coordinator of the pro-Erdogan SETA Foundation think tank, insists that to contain Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf, Israel is not enough – that Turkey is needed, too. Another SETA writer, Bilgehan Öztürk opined that due to the upcoming revival of the nuclear deal with Iran, US allies in the region will be forced to mend their ties, put aside their differences, and learn to compromise.
Turkish commentator Emir Asnas, also a former commercial counsellor at the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv, agrees that US disengagement is one of the main reasons behind renewed efforts to improve Israeli-Turkish relations.
“An anti-Iran front is important for Israel and the Gulf,” he says. Nonetheless, Asnas underlines that Israel is hesitating to appear too eager to have warm relations with Turkey, partly because it evaluates its ties with the Gulf as far more substantial than with Ankara.
Second is the Jewish lobbying factor. According to Asnas, it is also important to get closer to Israel in order to improve Ankara’s strained relations with Washington. Lobbying for Turkey within Israeli circles in the US provides enormous clout for improving Israel-Turkey relations: “This is obvious from the activities of the Turkish Ambassador to the US,” he says.
Israeli and Turkish media reports have drawn attention to the role of US mediation, some of which involved American rabbi Marc Schneier who has worked as an intermediary between Israel and Turkey. Schneier met with Turkish Ambassador to the US, Hasan Murat Mertcan, and said to him: “If you want Turkey to restore its relationship with the American Jews, Congress, administration, etc., the path is through Israel.”
Asnas points out, however, that there is a notable difference between past and present relationship dynamics. In the past, it was Israel who longed for good relations with Turkey, whereas now the tables have turned: “Today, it is Turkey [which longs for good relations with Israel], thus, the weak side is Turkey.”
Third is the notion that shared information and military assets will bolster this alliance in West Asia. An analyst writing for Turkey’s TRT states that the armies and the intelligence agencies of both countries will play a critical role in driving the restoration of relations.
The failure of ‘Erdoganomics’
Syria’s resistance against the US-backed regime change war, the region-wide failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the strife between the UAE-Saudi axis on the one hand – and the Qatar-Turkey axis on the other – were some of the causes of Turkey’s economic downturn. Until 2015, the UAE was the first country from the Gulf that championed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Turkey. The almost four-year Emirati-Saudi blockade against Qatar, and an informal Saudi boycott of Turkish goods, caused a great blow to the Turkish economy.
Trade with Israel, however, was a different story. Despite the diplomatic and political strife between the two states, their trade volume surpassed 8 billion dollars in 2021. An Israeli diplomatic official describes this relationship as a “strategic partnership,” and Erdogan is already aiming for a $10 billion trade volume with Israel this year.
According to Emir Asnas, the Turkish economy urgently needs external sources to help sugar-coat the so-called “Presidential System of Government” which was accepted in 2017 after a controversial referendum that bestowed the president with unprecedented – some say, undemocratic – powers. For Asnas, restoring ties with Israel means a spike in inflow of western financial capital to Turkey, and potentially, a greater outflow of exports.
The conflict in Syria and the struggle with the Gulf shut the door on Turkish exports to the Arabian Peninsula. An export-oriented growth model is the vital ingredient of ‘Erdoganomics’ – especially for his substantial voter base in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) – and so restoring ties with Israel and the UAE has become imperative.
Energy pipe dreams
Economic turmoil and diplomatic exhaustion have forced Turkish policymakers to consider reviving – at least partially – their old foreign policy framework of “zero problems with our neighbors.”
Due to China’s Covid-zero policy and supply chain disruptions, Turkey is hoping to transform itself into an export and energy hub for the west – especially Europe – and has desperately sought ways to implement its desired export-growth strategy.
This will set off fierce competition for East Mediterranean energy routes. The US withdrawing its support for the EastMed gas pipeline project seems to have re-energized Turkish ambitions to establish itself as a West Asia energy hub. This energy rivalry is one of the main motivations driving Ankara into Tel Aviv’s arms.
Israeli officials claim that Erdogan wants Israeli gas urgently and there are rumors – particularly as Washington seeks ways to bypass Russian gas supplies – that the US will support the transit of Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey. Turkish state media openly acknowledges the energy synergies between the two states.
A Turkish official told Reuters that Ankara wants Israeli gas to make its way through Turkey to Europe. According to an analysis on Anadolu, the new Israeli-Turkish energy cooperation is an “energy diplomacy for peace.”
But Asnas thinks that the East Mediterranean issue is not the most important one. “In the short term, I am not sure how this cooperation would be feasible,” he says. According to him, Turkish emphasis on natural gas is a means to garner western support for Turkish activities in the region.
Back to basics
When Israel and the UAE normalized ties in 2020, senior AKP figures hit back angrily. Erdogan even threatened to cut ties with Abu Dhabi after the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ deal was struck, and made a point of reiterating his support for Palestinians
But now we are entering a new, blinkered, honeymoon period with Israel and a return to the same old Turkish policy regarding the Palestinian cause: ‘Out ties with Israel is good for Palestinians!’
This was emphasized by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who appeared on a TV discussion show and claimed that normalization with Israel was a wish of Palestinians from Turkey.
According to Asnas, rapprochement efforts mark a progressive return to the Turkish foreign policy of the 1990s, when the Turkish government established very close relations with Israel due to its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and threats to invade northern Syria. “We can foresee not only commercial and economical improvements, but also compact military and political relations with Israel, like in the 1990s,” he predicts.
Indeed, Cavusoglu claimed in February that restoring ties with Israel could enhance the Turkish role in Palestinian affairs and Ankara’s role as a supporter of the two-state solution. Asnas dismisses the idea, saying that today, unlike in the 1990s, the proposal for a two-state solution is little more than a farce.
There is also possible Turkish-Israeli cooperation over Syria. Asnas remarks that for Israel, the Axis of Resistance remains the main threat to Tel Aviv in the region. To oppose Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, the Israelis needs strong allies in Ankara who share similar objectives, for different reasons. The continued destabilization of Syria is therefore vital for Israel, and Turkey is the key actor to sustain this chaos, Asnas claims. “So, Syria emerges as an area that Israel and Turkey directly cooperate against.”
By upgrading relations with Tel Aviv, Turkey, as the first Muslim-majority country to have recognized the state of Israel, is reverting back to type, a policy which has functioned for decades. But the global and regional balance of power has shifted significantly in the interim, and it is uncertain that what worked before could achieve much of anything today.