When Turkey Comes To Terms Again With Israel

The restoration of diplomatic relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv signals another change of course in Turko-Israeli relations which have always been dictated, on the Turkish side by domestic politics. This normalisation also reflects an upheaval in the region’s political landscape, marked by the decline of the Islamist movements fostered by the 2011 uprisings but seems not to displease the Palestinian Authority.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid shake hands during a press conference on June 23, 2022 in Ankara
Ozan Kose/AFP

It was in a phone conversation on 17 August 2022 that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lipid agreed to completely restore diplomatic relations between their two countries, by reappointing ambassadors in their respective capitals, for the first time since 2018. Lapid made a point of declaring that this resumption of relations will be an important factor in regional stability and will contribute to strengthening Israel’s economy and improving its situation on the international scene.

Ankara justifies its decision by stressing the interests of the Palestinians. In an interview which he gave the Turkish radio station Haber Global on 23 August, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas were pleased with the normalisation of Turco-Israeli relations because it will enable Ankara to provide more effective support for the Palestinian cause. Turkey can count on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to back up its decision, since these remarks were made at a time when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was visiting the Turkish capital to meet with President Erdoğan. As for Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riyad Al-Maliki, in a declaration on Turkish CNN, he described this return to normal relations between Turkey and Israel as a useful move in favour of the Palestinian cause: “We were not surprised by the Turkish decision, and it makes us happy because it will help the Palestinians.” A reaction which jars with another expressed in August 2020 when the United Arab Emirates normalised their relations with Israel: the same Palestinian Authority announced via its official spokesperson Nabil Abou Roudeina that it rejected Abu Dhabi’s decision, which torpedoed the Arab peace initiatives and demanded it be abandoned.

An historic ally of Israel

Turkish foreign policy toward Israel changed when Erdoğan became Prime Minister in 2002. A commitment in support of the occupied territories allowed the conservative Islamic leader to polish his image in the Arabo-Muslim world. In 2004, shortly after he took office, a free-trade agreement was signed with the Palestinian Authority (PA), enabling Turkey to export goods to the West Bank (in 2013 these Turkish exports amounted to 290 million dollars). Turkish aid to the Palestinian Authority varies between 10 and 20 million dollars each year, and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) implements social programs in the Palestinian territories, among them 70 projects in East Jerusalem alone during the last decade and plans to build a school in every Palestinian town. In 2014, Istanbul hosted an international congress for the reconstruction of the territory after an Israeli offensive which had caused over 2,200 casualties. On that occasion, the Turkish government released an aid of 200 million dollars. Ankara also seeks to extend its symbolic influence by calling on its Ottoman heritage, as was the case in 2017 with the operation dubbed “In the footsteps of Abdulhamid”1 when a delegation from Istanbul’s town hall went to Jerusalem to clean that city’s Ottoman monuments.

But Turkey’s foreign policy on this issue has not always been the same. Historically, during the Israeli-Arab war of 1948; Turkey opted for neutrality and was the first Muslim country to recognise the existence of Israel on 28 March 1959. Several months later, in January 1950, Ankara dispatched a diplomat to Tel-Aviv; Seyfullah Esen was the first Turkish chargé d’affaires in Israel. During the 1950s, Turkey joined the Western block in protesting Cairo’s decision to prevent Israeli ships from using the Suez Canal, while the Mossad opened an office on Turkish territory.

During the cold war, Turkey’s joining NATO in 1952 did not encourage the country to adopt a policy favourable to the Palestinians, all the less so as the Palestinian question figured on the programs of the left-wing opposition parties and the Kurdish separatist movements. In 1954, when Prime Minister Adnan Menderes visited the USA, he even urged the Arab countries to recognise Israel.

The significant ties between the Turkish military and the US Army gradually led Turkey to develop its relations with the Israeli high command in reaction to the emergence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For at the beginning of the eighties, Kurdish fighters trained in the Bekaa Valley camps in Lebanon thanks to their connections with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

At the beginning of the nineties, Turco-Palestinian relations were at their worst, whilst the Turkish army was signing many defence contracts with Tel-Aviv. It is interesting to note that some of these contracts were signed by the Islamist party, Refah, to which Erdoğan was affiliated and as such was elected mayor of Istanbul.

However, soon afterwards, and even before the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Erdoğan, relations with the PLO improved considerably on account of Ankara’s wish to take advantage of the new economic environment facilitated by the Oslo Accords. Prior to the Camp David talks in 2000, Premier Bülent Ecevit even decided to take on the role of mediator between Palestinians and Israelis, suggesting that the latter share sovereignty over the holy sites in Jerusalem. While favouring the Palestinians’ right to an independent state, the Turkish government convinced Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, to defer his plan to declare Palestinian independence in the wake of the second Intifada.

An opportunity for domestic politics

The early years of Erdoğan’s rise to power were characterised by the widening of the split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority ruled by Fatah, as well as the swing to the right in Israeli politics. These changes prompted Turkey to play a more active role as protector of the rights of the Palestinians.

In 2006, former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at convincing Washington that Hamas’ electoral victory should be regarded as an opportunity rather than a threat. At the time, Ankara was thinking that it could persuade the leaders of the Palestinian Islamist party to become integrated into the international political scene and put an end to their special relations with Iran and Syria. As the AKP wanted to maintain good relations with all the conflicting parties in the occupied territories, the following year Turkey hosted a summit conference including Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas.

The source of tension between Israel and Turkey is not to be found in Ankara’s pro-Islamist policies or its rhetoric in favour of Palestinian liberation but in the domestic repercussions of these issues within the two countries. Thus, when the Marmara flotilla of humanitarian aid to Gaza was attacked by Israeli commandos in 2010, causing the death of nine Turkish activists, the AKP government’s chief concern was to take advantage of the event to further its rhetoric of Muslim unity and support for the Palestinian cause, this to increase its popularity at home and in the Muslim world.

This tendency became more evident in 2013 with the street protests that erupted in Istanbul around the dismantling of Gezi Park, the green heart of the city. The huge demonstrations in Taksim Square expressed the growing resentment of a part of the population against the authoritarian policies of the AKP and the corrupt practices of Erdoğan’s entourage, especially his son, Bilal Erdoğan. Five people were killed by the police and over 8,000 were injured. There too, the Palestinian cause proved useful to promote the authorities’ narrative, claiming that the protestors were influenced by Zionism and that they were campaigning against Erdoğan because of his role as leader of the Muslim world. A poll conducted in 2013 by Konda Research and Consulting Institute confirmed the effectiveness of this propaganda: while 40% of respondents saw the protests as a “democratic struggle for citizens’ rights and freedom,” the majority saw them as a plot against Turkey.

Interests in common between Fatah and Israel

Despite the cooling of diplomatic relations between Ankara and Tel-Aviv that followed the Marmara incident, trade relations went on uninterrupted between the two countries, amounting to 5 billion dollars in 2014. The country’s intelligence service run by Hakan Fidan still coordinated Ankara’s and Tel-Aviv’s positions in matters of security, regarding the situation in Syria. At the same time, their diplomatic relations further deteriorated in 2018, when Ankara recalled its representative in Tel-Aviv and deported the Israeli ambassador in reaction to the violent repression of Palestinian Street protests in Gaza following then US President Trump’s decision to transfer his country’s embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. At the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, henceforth President of Turkey, declared that if the United States carry out its threat to put an end to its aid to the PA, Turkey will be there.

This promise attests to the growing proximity between Fatah and Ankara, despite the close ties between the AKP and Hamas. Turkey has always recognised the PA, dominated by Fatah, as the legitimate government on the West Bank, and in June 2017 the party’s current leadership had applauded Turkey’s condemnation of the talks between Hamas and the fallen leader of Fatah, Mohamed Dahlan. Turkey’s proximity with Ramallah also has repercussions on the ground. On 25 February 2015, the official in charge of Turkish religious affairs decided to include a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in a three-day program for Turkish pilgrims on their way to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two main holy sites. In 2016 there were 15,846 Turkish visitors to the West Bank and in 2017 this figure rose to 23,312. The imam in charge of the Al-Aqsa Mosque declared in October 2017 on the website Al-Monitor that “Turkish visitors constitute the largest Muslim contingent of visitors to the Al Aqsa Mosque, they are present every Friday.”

However, the Fatah leadership is critical of Ankara for playing host to Palestinian officials without consulting them and for providing asylum for dozens of Hamas cadres, which allows Erdoğan’s government to have a real influence on the movement. An opinion shared by Israel, since a Saudi- financed, London-based journal, Al-Sharq Al-Aswat, quoting Israeli political sources, reported that during the period prior to the rapprochement between Ankara and Tel-Aviv, the Israeli government failed to reply favourably to Erdoğan’s efforts to improve relations between the two countries. Indeed, Tel-Aviv had demanded that Turkey reconsider its support for Hamas and stop encouraging its military activities.

And indeed, in March 2022, Ankara asked several dozen Hamas military cadres to leave the country and informed the party’s leaders that it would no longer provide its military aid. According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, Ankara has been handling for the past year and a half a secret channel of negotiations with several countries in the region, including Israel, “with an eye to finding a new home for Hamas.” Thus, President Erdoğan is reconsidering his priorities, given his country’s economic crisis and falling currency, and with an election coming up in June 2023.

The change of course after the Arab Springs

The motivations behind Turkey’s “normalisation” policy shed light on the AP’s doublespeak regarding this question of normalisation, since, on the one hand, it accuses the Arab countries that are normalising their relations with Israel of financing the economy of the Israeli occupant, while on the other it tacitly approves Turkish-Israeli trade, which in 2021 amounted to 8.1 billion dollars. By the end of 2022, this figure is expected to reach 10 billion dollars.

Ankara also intends to cooperate with Tel-Aviv on the Mediterranean gas project, the extension of an offshore pipeline carrying gas from the Israeli Leviathan field to continental Turkey. The latter plans to buy part of this gas for local use and export the rest to Europe, via existing trans-Anatolian pipelines. The Turkish firm Zorlu Holdings is currently negotiating with the Israeli government for the construction of a pipeline which may cost a much as 2.5 billion dollars.

Regarding the tourist trade, the number of Israeli visitors to Turkey is at a record high of 560,000 per year, of whom 358,000 use Turkish Airlines. The Turkish company now operates ten flights daily between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul. On the Israeli side, according to the newspaper Israel Hayom, Israeli airport authorities are planning to set up international flights to Turkey for Palestinians from the Ramon airport near Eilat, in partnership with the Turkish company Pegasus Airlines. This would allow Palestinians living in the occupied territories to travel abroad without having to transit via Jordan.

The return to the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Israel can be understood in the light of the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world. The instability affecting the region has made the Palestinian question seem less important, prompting most of the surrounding countries to concentrate on their domestic problems. A situation which has also had its impact in Turkey. Indeed, we are nearing an end of Ankara’s support for the Islamist movements that came out of those uprisings, what with the defeats of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, and the deterioration of the Syrian situation, not to mention Erdoğan’s domestic opposition with its criticisms of his foreign policy.

Ankara at present is seeking more balanced relations with the Arab countries, in particular with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – both on good terms with Israel – and with Egypt, which implies reconsidering its support for the Islamists.

Given this context, the Palestinian question no longer constitutes an area of convergence with most of the countries in the region since it has now been reduced to a security issue rather than a political one.

1Abdülhamid II (1842-1918) was the last absolute monarch of the Ottoman Empire.