The Middle East Channel

The Turkey-Israel rapprochement

The Turkey-Israel rapprochement

After a three-year rupture, one of the most important relationships in the Middle East is on the cusp of repair. It will be a long while before Turkey and Israel can go back to business as usual, and the relationship will remain hostage to Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Nevertheless, last month’s Israeli apology to Turkey has far-reaching implications for the region. It clears a path for the two countries to work together, albeit behind-the-scenes, on their most urgent common concern — Syria — as well as a host of other issues, including military technology and NATO-Israel cooperation.

The impasse broke two weeks ago when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for a 2010 Israeli raid that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. The two countries’ relationship had been strained in the preceding years, in part because of Israel’s war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008 to January 2009. In the summer of 2009, Erdogan famously stormed off a stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after a clash with Israel’s President Shimon Peres over the war. But the 2010 raid gave Erdogan an opportunity to curry favor at home with the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party, and raise his regional stature further. 

As Erdogan’s political ambitions have shifted in the years since, the populist prime minister has abandoned this alliance of convenience with the ultra-nationalists. Israel, therefore, lost some of its luster as a wedge issue for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). That, in concert with the departure of hardline Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, and the two countries’ shared interests in Syria, enabled Netanyahu’s crucial apology and Turkey’s acceptance.

The apology was out of character for the typically defiant Israeli leadership, and Netanyahu has swallowed a bitter pill indeed. Although public opinion favored an apology, Israeli officials had previously insisted "Israel will never apologise for defending its citizens … it was not the Israeli side that initiated the violence."

Erdogan, having made Israel beg — insisting on an apology and compensation — emerges as the undisputed winner, his only concession being to quietly drop his demand that Israel end its blockade of Gaza. He had little to lose. His party remains the dominant force in Turkish politics. And while Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories have never been popular, Erdogan did not suffer at the polls when he cooperated closely with Israel in the mid-2000s. Moreover, many in Turkey, anxious at the prime minister’s vehement anti-Bashar al-Assad rhetoric, have been calling for the country to scale back its regional involvement and take a more conciliatory approach.

It caps a remarkable month for Erdogan. Just weeks ago, he secured a cease-fire with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), laying the groundwork to end a conflict that has bedeviled Turkey for decades. In doing so, he strengthened his ambitions to circumvent his party’s term limit by modifying the constitution and assuming a beefed-up presidency.

Nevertheless, Erdogan has made sure to cover his political flanks. The prime minister has, once again, threatened to visit the Palestinian territories to "monitor the Gaza blockade," and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has insisted, rather unconvincingly, that all of Turkey’s demands were met.

While this bluster has been a source of concern for some in Israel, it is highly unlikely that Turkey will renege on its acceptance of the Israeli apology. The AKP just wants to reinforce its version of events to the Turkish electorate. Just hours after the apology, the mayor in Ankara even put up billboards thanking Erdogan for securing the apology, and Davutoglu has continued to insist that its was Turkey’s principled diplomacy — and not mutual interests in Syria — that led to the Israeli volte face. The truth, it seems, is somewhere between the two extremes. 

Moreover, it won’t be business as usual. The AKP’s successful marginalization of the military — historically the most vocal and significant backer of a strong Turkey-Israel alliance — has changed the parameters of Turkish politics. Apology or no apology, Erdogan is freer to speak his mind on Israel than any of his predecessors and will continue to exploit the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and other evocative issues for political gain. In the near-term at least, therefore, Turkey will continue to frame the apology as an Israeli surrender, and will express public wariness of "normalization." 

The Israeli leadership, anticipating exactly that Turkish reaction, has thus far remained quiet. Part of the reason is that they are less interested in the atmospherics than the results. And of those results, the biggest impact of this rapprochement will be on the region. Over the past several years, Turkish foreign policy has been in a funk. In 2010, Ankara’s diplomacy exploded in its face when the United States and other members of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent five members plus Germany (P5+1) rejected a nuclear deal it had brokered with Iran. Turkey’s relationship with Iran has been strained since the Islamic Republic refused to grant Turkey favorable economic concessions after its decision to vote against U.N. sanctions on Iran in June 2010. The relationship really fell apart first after Turkey hosted a NATO radar on its soil and, more recently, after the war in Syria put the two countries on different sides. Turkey has hosted and sponsored the anti-Assad rebels, but watched with increasing frustration as the conflict has dragged on. Turkish officials’ fury against Western inaction only serves to underline their impotence. 

Turkey’s foreign policy mantra of "zero problems" with neighbors is now so widely scorned that Turkey’s foreign minister was forced to hit back, at the "many critics of our foreign policy" who had "interpreted the principle in a simplistic way." The restoration of the Turkey-Israel partnership does not cure these problems, but it does create new diplomatic opportunities.

For a start, the apology will be met with a mixture of delight and relief at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Israel, despite having joined NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue a decade ago, has been excluded from the alliance’s joint exercises at Turkish insistence and banned from any workshops or seminars held in Turkey. Last year, Ankara even blocked Israeli participation at the NATO summit in Chicago. 

NATO is eager to resume cooperation with Israel, the most powerful military force in the region, as the civil war in Syria and the nuclear crisis with Iran concern the alliance. Its officials have despaired at Turkey’s conduct. Only one month ago, Erdogan declared, "to be with such a cruel understanding would conflict with our structure, history and culture." Watch closely for the pirouette that should now follow.

Many, including Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, have pointed to the new potential for exports of Israeli natural gas to Turkey. But this may be jumping the gun. After Israel and Cyprus agreed in December 2010 to delimit their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the eastern Mediterranean for hydrocarbon exploration, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned Israel’s ambassador to complain, and implied that there would be a physical challenge to Cypriot efforts to extract natural gas from the EEZ in south Cyprus.

Just days ago, Turkey reiterated its insistence that Israel and Cyprus scale back their energy cooperation and account for the rights of the island’s Turkish minority. Turkey, unlike the European Union, the United States, and Israel, does not recognize the Nicosia government’s right to negotiate such agreements before a settlement is reached on the island. Any Israel-Turkey pipeline would have to go through Cyprus’s continental shelf. That can’t happen until Turkey resolves its issues with Cyprus, which is not on the horizon.

But what the apology could do is restart Turkey and Israel’s defense relationship. While the two sides were accustomed to playing up their shared democratic histories, their ties were largely cemented by the Turkish armed force’s interest in Israeli military technology. The close defense ties, which began in 1996, continued right up until the Mavi Marmara incident. Israel’s agreement last month to deliver specialized equipment for U.S.-made Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to Turkey may have been an indication that this relationship was being stitched together, partly under pressure from Boeing and the U.S. government. 

Turkey continues to rely on Israeli-made drones for border surveillance and counterterrorism, platforms that Turkey has only very recently started to manufacture itself. If the two sides start working together again on drone technology, Turkey’s airpower can expect a boost. Israel, on the other hand, could once again take advantage of Ankara’s voracious appetite for high-tech weapons. The downgrading of ties led to the canceling of numerous military contracts and likely cost Israeli aerospace firms millions of dollars.

The rapprochement might also allow an upgrade in intelligence cooperation in Syria. Both countries have a common interest in preventing the proliferation of heavy weapons to groups like the Kurdish, PKK-allied Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria and Hezbollah, as well as in monitoring Syria’s suspected chemical weapons facilities. Turkey’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities remain limited and the United States has been restricting what it shares. Rumors of intelligence cooperation have been swirling for a while. Israel and Turkey are natural partners in this regard.

Finally, the apology may shake up Turkey’s diplomacy in the Palestinian territories. After the apology, Turkey will, once again, be able to talk to all sides in the conflict. Seven years ago, Erdogan invited Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Ankara, angering Israel and foreshadowing the later breakdown of ties. Recently, Turkey has watched as new diplomatic actors, such as Qatar and Egypt, have made inroads into Hamas-run Gaza, particularly after the November 2012 war there. Turkey insisted that it was central to the peacemaking in Cairo, which brokered an end to fighting, but it was in fact a bit-part player.

Turkey is certainly not going to cut its ties to Hamas. In October 2012, Meshal received a standing ovation at the AKP’s National Congress, and he visited Ankara again last month. Meshal even spoke to Erdogan, to congratulate him on making the "Zionist entity … bow in compliance." But Turkey may, very slowly, rebalance its ties in favor of Hamas’ rival, Fatah, something that Israel would welcome at a time when regional powers are moving squarely in the opposite direction. Turkey may even feel well placed to broker reconciliation between the two factions, something that it tried and failed to do in 2009. Expect a corresponding strain on Turkey-Egypt relations as that unfolds.

Obama’s visit to the Middle East was poised to be remembered for a widely praised speech, but little of substance. In bringing together Erdogan and Netanyahu, both key regional allies of the United States, the White House will consider itself to have notched up a much-needed foreign policy success early in its second term, strengthened the coalition against Iran, and offered a reply to those who argued that U.S. diplomacy was becoming dangerously apathetic to the Middle East. This is a small step, but it affects nearly every regional issue of concern to Washington. It will be a long while before the Turkey-Israel relationship reaches its 1990s zenith, but this apology represents the beginning of a significant diplomatic realignment.

Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government. Follow him on twitter @shashj.

Aaron Stein is a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London and a researcher specializing in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk. Follow him on twitter @aaronstein1.