The deceptive nature of Israel-Turkey relations

The deceptive nature of Israel-Turkey relations

Although Israeli-Turkish political ties are fragile at best, the two countries have continued to enjoy increased bilateral trade ties.

Within the rarefied circle of international relations, that Turkey and Israel do not get on is taken as given. Turkey’s portrayal of itself as the Middle East’s beacon for Islamist democracy, and its subsequent support for Islamism throughout the region, has inevitably provoked consternation within the Israeli government.

Erdogan’s aggressive rhetoric towards Israel has done little to sate Netanyahu’s concerns. In 2013, Erdogan blasted Israel for its alleged complicity in the overthrowing of Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi.

A touch closer to home, Erdogan remains ostentatious in his show of support for Hamas, with whom Turkey’s government shares a degree of ideological affinity.

In his attempts, as Eric Trager of the Washington Institute puts it, “to bolster his Islamist credentials at home,” Erdogan is successfully driving an even greater wedge between Ankara and its Israeli neighbor.

Such diplomatic rancor was certainly not preordained. In the halcyon days of the Oslo Accords, relations exuded great signs of harmony. Yet Turkey’s support for Palestinian self-determination has always hovered ominously in the background, bursting forth in 2008, when Erdogan inserted himself into the maelstrom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He eagerly condemned Israel for its role in the Gaza conflict of 2008, repeating his accusations with impunity across numerous international forums. Throughout Turkey, demonstrators railed against Israeli actions. A seemingly irrevocable pattern was set in motion, as the Erdogan-Netanyahu back-and-forth began to mushroom and relations plummeted.

In 2010, things only got worse.

The Gaza flotilla incident

The apex of anti-Israeli sentiment within Turkey was reached on May 31, 2010, when Israeli troops stormed the Mavi Marmara ship – travelling as part of the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” – killing 9 Turkish activists and injuring many others. Taking place on international waters, seemingly without any provocation, international opprobrium exploded.

What remained of Turkish-Israeli diplomatic niceties was shred to pieces. Erdogan called the raid an “act of state terrorism.” He recalled Turkey’s ambassador from Israel, downgraded diplomatic ties, and suspended military cooperation in 2011.

An Israeli apology was demanded, which was half-heartedly, given in a phone call by Netanyahu in 2013. Yet Erdogan maintains that his words were taken out of context, shockingly described Zionism as a “crime against humanity” in a March 2013 speech at a UN event.

Relations rather inevitably remain stale, to say the least. On the diplomatic front, Erdogan remains set on garnering Islamist support across the region, to the obvious detriment of relations with Israel.

Yet, the relationship continues to follow one surprising (depending on your degree of cynicism) pattern – political acrimony coupled with ever-strengthening economic ties.

As Dan Arbell, Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, explains, the relationship today is one of “non-existent political dialogue accompanied by robust bilateral trade.”

And it is to these robust economies ties that we now turn to now.

Business as usual

As the graph above illustrates, the 21st century has been extremely productive for Turkish-Israeli trade.

Incessant diplomatic barbs fail to mask the ever-strengthening economic ties between the two states. With Erdogan lambasting Israel in the aftermath of the 2008-9 Gaza War, it could reasonably be expected that a loosening of economic ties would ensue.

Yet, between 2009-10, trade between the countries increased by a vast 25%.

Following the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident, again, it would not be unreasonable to expect a drop in the volume of Turkish-Israeli trade. But, as of May 2015, Israeli-Turkish trade had grown by 19% since 2009

The volume of Turkish-Israeli trade in 2014 alone was a significant $5.44 billion. Earlier this year, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachson stated that “the economies of Turkey and Israel complement each other and trade ties are flourishing.”

A strange lack of correlation

Erdogan’s unexpected triumph in Turkey’s November elections has given him and his AKP party much greater latitude in the construction of its foreign policy.

The AKPs security-centric message in the run-up to polling day definitively won out.

Netanyahu continues to garner domestic support through an elucidation of Israel’s hawkish stance against external, namely Islamist, threats. Erdogan, conversely, has assembled his coalition of support in the name of Islam, consistently attacking the Israeli government for its treatment of Turkey’s Islamic brethren in the Occupied Territories.

Erdogan’s priority remains the dampening down of the ever-growing Kurdish insurgency.

While focused on his own internal strife, it is perfectly conceivable that the simmering political tension between Turkey and Israel will take a quasi-permanent backseat, as Erdogan concentrates on defeating the Kurds and dealing with the EU on the refugee question.

Thus clearly, when it comes to Turkish-Israeli political relations, whatever will be, will be. But economically, it remains, and will continue to do so, full steam ahead.

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