In the Shadow of Gaza

Turkey and Israel: The Endurance of an Ambiguous Relationship

While the war on Gaza led to a verbal escalation between Ankara and Tel Aviv, relations between Israel and Turkey have survived, given the strong links and similarities between the two countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (right) meets Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu (left) on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, 19 September 2023.
Turkish presidency/AFP

Turkey’s first reaction to the unleashing of Israel’s war on Gaza surprised observers by its cautious tone, just as its reaction to the invasion of Ukraine had surprised by its legalism, insisting on the need to respect Kiev’s sovereignty. In both cases, Ankara, which maintains strong and steady relations with the two aggressor nations, has openly offered its mediation, as already in the past. In both cases too, the ambivalence detectable in that offer is not merely due to the conjuncture. It also reflects the fundamental nature of that country’s diplomacy, often forced to accomplish perilous balancing acts in the course of its history.

On 7 October 2023 when Hamas launched its unexpected attack, Turkey and Israel were during a process of reconciliation, after more than a decade of uneven relations bordering at times on divorce before entering laborious periods of reconciliation. The capacity to manage this volatility is the first source of surprise. It is due to multiple convergences, political, strategic and above all economic. What is the future of this complex relationship in view of the new situation brought about by the return to centre stage in the Middle East of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

As Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949, shortly after the creation of the Hebrew State, the two countries have long been partners and know each other well. After a few muted skirmishes caused by the Israeli-Arab confits during the cold war, their mutual relations have been very positive since the end of the bipolar world. Nor has the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the turn of the century appear to have called into question that ‘entente cordiale’. In 2008 Ankara even hosted unofficial negotiations aimed at enabling Israel and the Syrian regime to normalise their relations, negotiations which failed to achieve their purpose.

Rapprochement with Hamas

It was not so much the Palestinian question as it was the new situation created by the rise to power of Hamas in the Gaza Strip resulting from the 2006 elections which was at the origin of the Turko-Israeli quarrel which began in 2009. When Israel launched its first campaign of massive bombings on the Palestinian enclave, dubbed ‘Operation Cast lead’, Ankara was quick to react. In a memorable panel meeting during the January 2009 Davos economic forum, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan castigated Israeli President, Shimon Pérès in no uncertain terms.

From that point on, the new Turkish government was seen to draw close to Hamas, seeking to make it an official partner in the negotiations. A year later, Turkish-Israeli relations were on the verge of breaking down altogether when the Mavi Marmara, flagship of a humanitarian flotilla chartered by a Turkish Islamic organisation, tried to force the Gaza blockade. Nine Turkish humanitarian workers were killed when the ship was intercepted and the ties between the two countries appeared to be irremediably compromised.

However, in 2013, in a completely unprecedented gesture, Benyamin Netanyahu agreed to offer Erdoğan the apologies he was demanding to restore their relations. Hoover, this initiative was compromised in 2014 by a new campaign of air strikes on Gaza, ‘Protective Edge’ which the leader of the AKP denounced, accusing Israel of having ‘outdone Hitler in barbarity’.1 Consequently, it was not until 2016, after compensation had been paid to the families of the victims of the humanitarian flotilla that high-level diplomatic relations were restored with an exchange of ambassadors. But the truce would not last long.

In 2019, the Gazans’ Great March of Return was severely repressed with many Palestinian casualties, prompting a new verbal confrontation between the Turkish President and the Israeli Prime Minister. Another downturn in diplomatic relations ensued and it was not until 2022 and Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s trip to Turkey that the two countries again exchanged ambassadors, in a context where Ankara was trying to iron out its disputes with the Arab world (Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia…) and when the latter appeared to have entered into a phase of global convergence with Israel, following the Abraham accords.

More than its inconstancy, what strikes one today beyond this lasting quarrel is the resiliency which has, in the end, preserved the relationship between the two protagonists. For neither the interception of a humanitarian ship, nor the increasingly intensive air strikes against Gaza, nor the very harsh verbal duels between rulers, nor the bloody repression of Palestinian demonstrations were able to get the better of the fragile links between those two regional powers.

The role of the Jewish community

To understand how Turkish-Israeli relations have survived and been regularly revived, it is important to identify what it is that has structured them enduringly. The solidity of their economic ties constitutes the first axis of that continuity. As proof of this, we need only remember that during the conflictual years that we have just described, Turkey tripled its exports to Israel, which roos from 2.3 billion dollars in 2011 to 7.03 billion in 2022. Providing 5.2% of the country’s imports, Turkey is thus Israel’s fifth-largest supplier and its seventh-largest customer for 2.2% of its exports, to the tune of 2.5 billion dollars per annum. These trade relations concern vital domains. Heading the list of Israeli importations from Turkey are steel, iron, textiles, motor vehicles and cement, not to mention the Azerbaijani oil which transits via the Caucus and Eastern Anatolia through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) to Ceyhan harbour and covers 40% of Israel’s annual consumption of brut. The Turkish corporation Zorlu also provides 7% of Israel’s electricity. As for Israel, its exports to Turkey consist mostly of chemical products and high-tech equipment. These have played a substantial role in the modernisation of Turkish industrial production over recent years, especially in the manufacture of armaments.

A shared historical memory constitutes another aspect of the relations between these two nations which helps to overcome the vagaries of their mutual relations. Jews were one of the ‘Millets’2 of the Ottoman Empire which granted refuge, especially in its emblematic port cities (Salonica, Istanbul, Izmir…) to the Sephardi Jews driven out of Spain in the Fifteenth Century. Despite the unequal situation which has been theirs since the birth of the Turkish Republic, as evinced by various anti-Semitic episodes during and after WW2, they reman one of the last Jewish communities in the Muslim world, in a country that does not reject them as was shown recently in the Turkish TV series Kulup, based on scrupulous observation of their linguistic and cultural specificities. This past and this atmosphere have contributed to the flood of Israeli tourists to Turkey where, despite the successive crises, they go again and again, representing before October 2023, one of the country’s largest complements of foreign visitors.

Strategic interests

And finally, however conflictual the climate surrounding their relations, we must not underestimate the importance of the strategic interests which the two countries have in common. Turkey remains an ally of the West since it belongs to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and hosts important bases: headquarters for the allied land forces of the Alliance’s South flank at Izmir, anti-ballistic missile radar station at Kürecik, mainly directed towards Iran, and Incirlik airport which serves if required as a relay for the shipment of military equipment to Israel. In February 2024, Ankara joined the anti-missile European Sky Shield Initiative, based on a 2023 German initiative and supported by 17 countries. This project, shunned by France, will use among other equipment, the Israeli long-range Arrow 3 missiles.

Besides which, neither country is about abandoning its lasting conflict with Syria. After a series of military interventions carried out in 2018, Ankara has taken over strips of land straddling its border with Syria, administering, and equipping them ever since, even if it claims to have no irredentist ambitions but wants mostly to prevent the implantation of People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As for Israel, in the context of the ongoing conflicts, its army regularly launches strikes against the positions o f the Syrian regime and its regional allies (the Lebanese Hezbollah) with Russian approval if necessary.

Although considerable disagreements have been expressed by officials of both countries concerning their commitments in the Caucuses, a strategic convergence was observed in 2020 during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which both provided Azerbaijan with precious military backing and ultimately made possible its regaining control of the Armenian enclave.

The shadow of Palestine

Despite these spates of convergence, it is true that relations between the two countries are regularly affected by their permanent disagreements over the Palestine question and especially the situation which prevails in the Gaza Strip. After the interception of the Mavi Marmara in June 2010, Ankara froze 16 arms agreements with Israel. A decision which should also be seen as a consecration of Turkish military power arising from that cooperation, illustrated by the setting up of a system of organisation of the Turkish armaments industry patterned after the Israeli model or by the manufacture of sophisticated armaments such as drones, originally provided by Israel.

More recently, in January 2024, Turkey took Israel off the list of countries it targets for export. This decision deprives Turkish companies of State aid for exports to that country. It shows the leeway Turkey now enjoys on the booming export market but does not call into question very deeply its bilateral trade relations. At the end of January 2024, the Transport Ministry statistics showed that 700 Turkish ships had put in at Israeli ports since 7 October 2023, i.e. an average of 8 ships per day. Their cargos consisted of such essential products as steel, oil, and textiles for the Israeli war machine and involved companies often closely associated with Turkish circles of power, ‘underlining’, according to independent Turkish journalist Metin Cihan3 ‘the hypocrisy and double speak of the country’s rulers.’

The stiffening of the Turkish position after the start of the Israeli attack on Gaza and the many Palestinian civilians killed has enabled the regime to keep pace with the emotions experienced by the Turkish population. This is more important for the AKP as there are to be local elections on 31 March 2024 at which time Erdoğan hopes to win back the symbolic cities of Ankara and Istanbul, lost in 2019. However, it is unlikely that this stiffening will result in a reconsideration of the existing economic ties between the two countries, or by an official breaking-off of diplomatic relations. Basing itself on the experience of crisis management acquired over the past two decades, Ankara will probably tend rather to limit the scope of its trade relations with Israel, attempting to compensate for this through the renewal, already under way, of its relations with the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, in particular) as well as with Egypt.

If Erdoğan gets over the hump of the Spring elections, he should be able to resume a more diplomatic posture, arguing that he can serve the Palestinian cause better by siding with other regional powers more deeply committed since the crisis began (Qatar, Egypt, United Arab Emirates…). Such an attitude would not in the long run be so remote from that felt by a public opinion which is also ambivalent, and which began by being very wary of Turkey’s committing itself too deeply and did not in its majority approve of breaking off trade relations with Israel. It is therefore likely that the regime will rely upon an array of contradictory interests and sentiments to maintain that ambiguous relationship with Israel, which has been kept alive for such a long time.

1Le Monde, 19 July 2014.

2EDITOR’S NOTE: Legally protected religious community.

3Quoted by Nicolas Bourcier in ‘Face à Israël, le double visage de la Turquie’ Le Monde, 7 December 03.