A place in the sun? Assessing the Turkish government’s olive branch to Israel

A place in the sun? Assessing the Turkish government’s olive branch to Israel

Following the election of Joe Biden as the next US President, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has set the eyes of an increasingly diplomatically isolated nation on its regional neighbour and former ally. Israel, spurred by the threat of Iran in the region, has also sent signals that rapprochement with Turkey is on the cards. Can the two countries mend their fraught relationship?

At a press conference following Friday prayers on 25 December 2020, President Erdoğan declared that Turkey’s relations with Israel had “not stopped, they continue”, pointing out that the issues remained with “the people at the top”. Earlier, on 9 December, sources indicated that Ankara had appointed Ufuk Ulutas as the new Turkish Ambassador to Israel after a two-year absence. Ankara’s moves suggest that Turkey, after a decade of friction, is seeking to resuscitate its diplomatic relationship with the Jewish State.

Rekindling a long-standing relationship

Turkey’s relationship with Israel reaches back to 1949 when Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to formally recognise the newly created Jewish State. However, Ankara’s relationship with Israel worsened after 2010 when the Israeli military stormed six civilian aid ships on their way to Gaza in international waters, killing nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists. This act was described by Erdoğan as “state terrorism”, causing a rapid deterioration in relations between the two countries, and leading to Ankara expelling the Israeli Ambassador to Turkey in September 2011. In May 2018, an Israeli attack on a Palestinian protest in the Gaza Strip, as well as US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, further damaged the relationship between the two nations, leading to the withdrawal of diplomatic envoys from both countries.

In the current situation, Erdoğan’s public statement, as well as the appointment of Ufuk Ulutas, suggest that Turkey is investing in improving relations with Israel after becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage. This is especially so in the light of the US presidential election victory of Joe Biden, who is known for his critical stance towards Turkey, as well as Israel’s success in establishing formal ties with several Muslim states in its vicinity in the latter half of 2020, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

All eyes and ears?

In response, on 30 December 2020, the Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi reportedly held a meeting to discuss the remarks by the Turkish President. According to sources present at the meeting, Ashkenazi decided to send “quiet feelers” to Ankara via various channels to assess the seriousness of Erdoğan’s statements. In addition, the Turkish intelligence service has reportedly been holding secret talks with Israeli officials concerning the normalisation of relations. Nonetheless, Israeli officials remain wary of Erdoğan’s true intentions, contending that relations with other key countries in the region, including Greece and Cyprus, remain too valuable for Israel to risk in order to get closer to Turkey. Finally, Israel has long been irked by Turkey’s support for Hamas and has accused Turkey of granting citizenship to at least twelve senior Hamas members, allowing them to plan attacks on Israel from their base in Istanbul. Concurrently, during his speech, Erdoğan highlighted that Turkey would not tolerate Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinian State, making it clear that Israel’s “merciless acts there are unacceptable”.

Erdogan UN assembly

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Tuesday, 24 September 2019. Copyright: AP Photo/ Richard Drew 2019. Source: https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/president-erdogan-trends-on-twitter-after-un-speech-30092

A grander diplomatic plan

Ankara’s novel diplomatic game plan also hinges on Qatar’s recent reconciliatory breakthrough at a summit with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on 5 January 2021 and its decision to lift the blockade imposed on Doha since May 2017. Turkey has maintained a military base in Qatar since 2015, and the Gulf nation has been an important ally of Ankara. Qatar’s reconciliation process with the other Gulf states, most importantly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also holds the potential for Turkey to reach a rapprochement with Israel after some of Qatar’s Gulf allies have already done so. In addition, some analysts believe that Doha could become a crucial intermediary not only between Jerusalem and Ankara, but also between Turkey and the Emirates, which have been embroiled in a political disagreement over the past few years.

Nonetheless, it appears that the majority of states in the region, including Turkey, are merely rushing to find a place in the sun with the incoming Biden administration by approaching America’s most important ally in the region. However, being perceived as fence-mending certainly plays out well for Turkey on an international level, allowing Erdoğan to gain much-needed credit not only with Washington, but also with the increasingly antipathetic European Union. Very recently, in December 2020, EU leaders agreed to impose sanctions on an unspecified number of Turkish officials and entities involved in gas drilling in Cypriot-claimed waters. However, EU officials postponed larger decisions such as trade tariffs or an arms embargo until they could be discussed with the incoming Biden administration.

Recalibrating the relationship?

Notwithstanding, Turkey’s present overtures are unlikely to convince Israel of any future resolutions without reassurances on Ankara’s part on the Hamas issue, a topic Ankara has thus far remained silent on. A letter by Hamas to President Erdoğan that surfaced on 21 December 2020 explicitly stated Hamas’ discomfort over the Turkish “normalisation” process with Israel, asking Ankara to enact laws that “defend the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”. Turkey’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean – a “Turkish crescent” shaped trading route between Libya, Syria and North Cyprus – are bound to pose a further obstacle to normalising ties with Israel.

There remains, however, potential for the two countries to take further steps to improve their relations, with the prime catalyst stemming from the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June 2021. While Turkey and Israel are presently neither friends nor enemies, Ankara does not consider itself as a friend of Iran either. A conservative Iranian election victory would undoubtedly edge the two countries closer together, and realpolitik may provide the final impetus for Erdoğan to give reassurances on the Turkish Hamas base issue in favour of an Israeli-Turkish defense agreement, which would evidently outweigh any prior antagonistic sentiments.

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