On March 9, the Israeli president Isaac Herzog arrived in Ankara for an official visit, which included a meeting with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Herzog had told the Israeli press before his departure that his purpose was to “reset” relations with Turkey—which, since the beginning of the century, have gone from friendly to overtly contentious. Just two weeks ago, the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu traveled to the Jewish state, the first such visit in fifteen years. There have been several signs that, unlike previous attempts to mend fences, the latest might succeed.
The case in favor of reconciliation between Israel and Turkey is a strong one, and not only because of the long history of close diplomatic and military ties. Both nations share a common ally in Azerbaijan; both border Syria, and would prefer not to see the Russia-Iran-Assad axis succeed there. As a NATO member, Ankara is at least nominally aligned with the U.S., Israel’s greatest ally. If Turkey and Israel—which possess the two most capable militaries in the Middle East—could set aside their differences, they would together be a powerful pro-Western force in the region. Erdoğan, moreover, is diplomatically isolated and faced with an economic crisis, and thus could use all the help he could get.
Nonetheless, there are numerous factors militating against reconciliation. President Erdoğan is vocally pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. He openly supports Hamas, allowing it to use Turkey as its base of operations—a policy that has led to unrest in the Arab-majority areas of Jerusalem, where Turkey has spent millions to develop an influence network. At the same time, the Jewish state in recent years has forged increasingly close ties with Cyprus and Greece, Turkey’s sworn enemies. Erdoğan also seems an unreliable ally against Iran: even as he supports anti-Iranian forces in Syria and the Caucasus, he allows sanctions-evading trade to flow through Turkish territory and banks. When it comes to Russia, too, Ankara has played both sides, having purchased sophisticated Russian missiles against the wishes of its NATO allies, but now selling drones to Ukraine that have proved crucial in the current war.
The first question to ask, then, is whether it is possible for Israel and Turkey to restore their alliance. Will the progress of the past few months vanish in the face of the next crisis in the Palestinian arena, or will a restoration of formal relations simply conceal, very thinly, ongoing tensions over Hamas, Iran, and other sources of conflict? The second question regards how recent changes in the Middle East—most importantly the Abraham Accords, but also the secondary effects of the war in Ukraine, the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, and so forth—affect the Israeli-Turkish calculus.
Lastly, is reconciliation with Turkey desirable? This is a hotly debated question, both in Israel and in American and European policy circles. Is Erdogan an opportunist who, given the right incentives, would prove a reliable ally to Israel and the West? If so, then the sources of conflict can be smoothed over, and productive cooperation can begin. But if he is an implacable foe, then offers of reconciliation are simply a trap that Jerusalem should avoid walking into. And even if the skeptics are correct, there is a separate debate to be had about whether the divide between the two countries is merely a byproduct of Erdoğan’s attitudes that might disappear under different leadership, or if the interests of the two countries have simply diverged.
Every time there is a major news story about Turkey in Israeli newspapers—whether it is the arrest of Israeli tourists last fall on absurd charges of working for the Mossad, or the more recent diplomatic overtures—these questions are taken up once again by columnists and analysts, who must try to make sense of a great deal of contradictory evidence.
I. A Promising Past
To achieve any sort of real clarity, it’s necessary to go back to 1949 when the battle lines of the cold war were just being drawn. As the successor state of the Ottoman empire, Turkey saw the Soviet Union in turn as the successor to Russia—the Ottomans’ historical nemesis—and eagerly adopted a pro-Western foreign policy, joining NATO in 1952.
By 1949, it was clear that the newborn Jewish state would be aligned with the U.S., and was unlikely to become a Soviet satellite. Recognition of Israel was thus a low-risk way for Ankara to demonstrate its loyalty to Washington. Thus Turkey—even though it had rejected the UN’s 1947 plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states—became the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel. From Jerusalem’s perspective, strong ties with Turkey were a cornerstone of Ben-Gurion’s “periphery strategy,” which rested on cultivating alliances with states on the fringes of the Middle East to compensate for being surrounded by hostile neighbors. Turkey, unlike other Muslim countries that signed peace or normalization treaties with Israel before formalizing diplomatic ties, established full diplomatic relations without fanfare. In this regard, Turkey took a radically different course from the Arab world.
One could, if so inclined, go back even further. When the Ottoman Turks conquered such Byzantine cites as Bursa and Constantinople in the 14th and 15th centuries, they treated the Jews who lived in them benignly. In 1492, Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jews expelled from Spain into his domain, and soon he ruled over the world’s largest concentration of Sephardi Jews. The Ottoman Jewish community for the most part experienced security and prosperity, especially in comparison to its counterparts in Christian Europe. Even when their situation worsened in the 20th century, with such ugly events as the Thrace pogroms of 1934 and the discriminatory and confiscatory wealth-tax law of 1942, Turkish Jews still fared better than their European and Middle Eastern brethren during those years.
Yet none of this meant that Turkish-Israeli relations were untroubled. From 1949 on the Palestinian issue, and the inclination of a deeply Muslim country to side with its coreligionists against the Jews, cast a shadow over bilateral diplomacy. Only after the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, where Israeli and Palestinian representatives began the negotiations that would lead to the Oslo Accords, did Turkey feel it could upgrade relations with Israel to the ambassadorial level.
There were also other, more immediate concerns that led Turkey to strengthen its ties with the Jewish state in last decades of the 20th century. In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched a guerrilla campaign against Turkish security forces while simultaneously conducting terrorist attacks on Turkish civilians. Using mountainous eastern Anatolia as its base of operations, the PKK waged a low-intensity war that the Turkish military was unable to win.
To gain the upper hand in this struggle, Turkey desperately needed advanced weaponry, which the U.S. and Western Europe, citing human-rights violations, refused to provide. Israel—whose economic, strategic, and diplomatic position was much weaker than it is now—could not afford to concern itself with such niceties. Once it became clear that Jerusalem was ready to cooperate, the Turkish military elite began to push consecutive civilian governments toward upgrading relations.
Apart from access to sophisticated arms, improved relations with Israel gave Ankara leverage against Syria, which was harboring Abdullah Öcalan, the head of the PKK. With two of its most powerful neighbors aligned against it, Damascus might be induced to abandon the Kurdish militant group. Öcalan in fact accepted a ceasefire in 1993, and in 1998 Syria demanded that he leave the country. For Israel, an alliance with Turkey strengthened its legitimacy in the Muslim world, provided a new source of income for its arms industry, and opened Turkish air space for training IDF jet pilots. Perhaps most importantly, Israel began to see Turkey, which shares a border with Iran, as a useful safe haven for its intelligence activities.
The confluence of these strategic factors with the apparent détente in the Israel-Palestinian conflict led to a high point in the relationship between the two countries. Yet diplomatic and military cooperation never translated into feelings of comity between the two peoples. Israeli tourists visited Turkey, but Turks rarely travelled to Israel. Jerusalem’s large-scale humanitarian efforts in the wake of the 1999 Gölcük earthquake, which included the establishment of an “Israel-Turkey Village” for the victims, did little to improve popular perceptions of the Jewish state. Nor did the star soccer player Haim Revivo, who played for two major Turkish soccer teams.
Turkish politicians contributed to these negative attitudes with their public pronouncements. For instance, then-Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit called Israel a “terror state” and accused it of “committing genocide” in 2002 following Operation Defensive Shield—launched to stop Palestinian suicide bombings. Such rhetoric found far more receptive audiences than any Israeli attempts to win over hearts and minds.
II. Erdoğan Comes on the Scene
These inherent weaknesses in what seemed like a strong alliance became more evident following the 2002 elections, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (known by the acronym AKP) won a landslide victory. Since the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk nearly a century ago, the Turkish government had been decidedly, and often aggressively, secularist. The rise of a conservative, Islamist party—which has held power ever since 2002—didn’t amount to a revolution in Turkish policy, but it was a decisive move in the opposite direction. And one need not know much about the history of Islamism to know that it has been inextricably bound up with anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel.
At the same time, the geopolitical realities of the 21st century were very different than those of the early 1990s. The decline of the PKK since 1999, when the Turkish intelligence agency captured Öcalan, combined with Ankara’s warming relations with the EU, reduced dependence on Israel. Still, the Turkish military establishment—which had a great deal of independent clout—supported the alliance, and maintained contacts with its IDF counterparts. And relations with Israel were a source of leverage and prestige in regional politics. Thus in 2008 Ankara sought to mediate between Israel and Syria, which at the time were involved in peace talks about the Golan Heights.
Erdoğan therefore did not blow up his country’s alliance with the Jewish state after coming to power. Rather, a gradual decline ensued. The real turning point came in December 2008, when the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead to stop the incessant rocket attacks on Israeli civilians from the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, regarded the Israeli attack on Hamas as a personal humiliation, first because he was not informed prior to its launch and second because he believed that it jeopardized the ongoing peace talks with Syria. Ideology aside, Erdoğan seems never to have forgiven the Jewish state for this slight, and from that moment on he became more explicitly critical, if not belligerent.
He made these feelings clear at the 2009 Davos summit in January. At a panel discussion of the situation in Gaza, Erdoğan let loose upon the late (then-President) Shimon Peres with a slew of accusations against Israel, quarreled with the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and stormed off stage. The incident didn’t just mark the overt rupture between the two countries, but also established an enduring pattern of behavior. Having received no public condemnation from the White House—in fact it was Peres who called him to apologize—and being praised at home for taking a public stand against Israel, Erdoğan realized that he had discovered a useful and low-cost way of maintaining his popularity with voters.
At this point, a feedback loop began to develop: lambasting Israel made Turkish politicians more popular, while those politicians’ vituperations increased negative perceptions of Israel. The poor state of people-to-people relations exacerbated the situation. Since Turks rarely visited the Jewish state, they formed their opinions based on portrayals in the heavily pro-Palestinian media and the condemnations of their politicians—and concluded that Israelis were rotten to the core.
Whatever was left of this once-robust alliance received a death blow in May 2010, when the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH)—later declared a terrorist organization by Israel—launched an aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip. The flotilla’s purpose was ostensibly philanthropic, but its real goal was to break the naval blockade the IDF had imposed on Gaza after the Hamas takeover in 2007. Had it succeeded, it would have opened the Strip (which already received ample humanitarian assistance over land routes) to commerce, but also to weapons.
Despite Jerusalem’s repeated warnings, the flotilla went ahead with its mission. When Israeli soldiers interdicted and boarded the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the flotilla, they were attacked with cold steel and firearms, and killed nine activists in the process of defending themselves. Media coverage—Western as well as Turkish—ignored the armed assault by the activists, and made the IDF out to be cold-blooded killers. Anti-Israel sentiments reached a peak in Turkey, the IHH and other Islamist groups used the incident as the basis for anti-Semitic agitation, and invective against Jews became a daily norm.
Not one to let an insult go to waste, Erdoğan demanded an apology, compensation, and an end to the naval blockade as preconditions for the restoration of relations. From Jerusalem’s perspective, the first two demands were—at the time—unjustified and the third untenable. Ankara thus decided to prevent Israel from participating in the annual joint military exercises known as Anatolian Eagle. Other NATO countries that normally took part withdrew in protest. In turn, Turkey took the highly controversial step of conducting a military drill with China on October 4, 2010. This act seems, in retrospect, to be the beginning of the current rift between Turkey and NATO.
To most Turkey observers, such an outcome had seemed impossible when Erdoğan took power, since they assumed that the pro-Israel and pro-NATO military brass would serve as a check on the civilian government’s foreign policy. But in 2008 and again in 2010, Turkish police forces, claiming that they had uncovered a plot to stage a coup, conducted mass arrests of Erdoğan’s political enemies, including no small number of generals, many of whom were friends of Israel. Erdoğan now had a military elite that was beholden to him, and that wouldn’t pressure him to mend the fences with Jerusalem.
Freed of any domestic incentive to maintain even a vestigial relationship with Israel, Erdoğan likewise had few geopolitical incentives to do so. The eruption of the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood’s seizure of power in Egypt in 2011, and the Obama administration’s attempt to create “daylight” between itself and Israel while trying to extricate the U.S. from the region made the Jewish state seem less of an asset to Ankara. President Obama in fact came to the White House well-disposed toward Erdoğan, while quickly becoming ill-disposed to Benjamin Netanyahu. On March 22, 2013, under pressure from Washington, Netanyahu called Erdoğan and apologized officially for the Mavi Marmara incident.
The phone call was one of a series of recent incidents that led to hopes, and even predictions, of reconciliation—which proved misplaced. In Erdoğan’s eyes the apology was insufficient so long as Jerusalem would not pay restitution and lift the blockade on Gaza. In the aftermath of the apology, Erdoğan and those in his circle continued to attack verbally not only Israel but “world Jewry,” blaming these sinister forces for the anti-government protests in Istanbul in 2013 and for the Egyptian military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in the same year.
III. The Normalization That Failed
Yet strategic realities can shift rapidly in the Middle East. Just how rapidly became clear on November 24, 2015, when Turkey’s forces shot down a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into its airspace from Syria. Tensions had already been rising because of the ongoing Russian bombardment of Syrian Turkmen, whom Ankara sees itself as duty-bound to protect. But Erdoğan couldn’t easily afford a confrontation with Syria’s most important powerbroker, especially given his country’s ever-growing dependence on Russian natural gas.
Meanwhile, Israel had discovered, and was preparing to tap into, the Leviathan and Tamar gas fields off its coastal waters. Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama was poised to leave the White House, and it seemed likely that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would see reconciliation with Israel as a mark in Erdoğan’s favor. Israel and Turkey soon worked out an agreement: the former would compensate the families of the nine slain IHH activists, while the latter would withdraw its demand for the lifting of the naval blockade on Gaza.
On June 27, 2016, the normalization agreement was signed and declared in real-time through separate press conferences: the Turkish prime minister Binali Yıldırım held his in Ankara while Benjamin Netanyahu held his in Rome. The fact that the leaders were reluctant to share the same room, not to mention Erdoğan’s absence, revealed the hollowness of the exercise. The next day Erdoğan declared his country’s normalization of relations with Russia following the fighter-jet crisis, which had the no-doubt-intended effect of distracting the public conversation from the somewhat embarrassing reconciliation with Israel.
Since then, Presidents Putin and Erdoğan have conducted numerous bilateral visits and summits, not to mention Turkey’s inclusion in the “Astana troika”—the other two members being Iran and Russia—that has put itself in charge of determining Syria’s future. By contrast, until March of this year there have been no bilateral summits on the presidential or prime-ministerial level with Israel. Instead, Turkey kept to low-profile gestures such as a meeting between the countries’ respective energy and tourism ministers. This was all well and good, but—despite what some hoped—could not constitute a step toward broader reconciliation.
On the contrary, Erdoğan once again resumed his verbal attacks on the Jewish state in 2017, when the Knesset debated a bill that require mosques to lower the volume of their loudspeakers when broadcasting the traditional call to prayer. The bill didn’t pass, but Erdoğan soon had another opportunity during the “metal-detector crisis,” when the Israeli government briefly experimented with installing such security devices at the entrances to the Temple Mount, following a terrorist shooting attack that claimed the lives of two Israeli border-police officers at the holy site. The measure sparked a predictable local and international hullabaloo, and the Turkish president couldn’t resist getting involved.
To outside observers, these outbursts might seem like cynical ploys—as if Erdoğan seeks out pretexts for indulging in anti-Israel rhetoric, which helps to shore up popular support. But while Erdoğan is hardly above such political opportunism, his feelings on these matters are almost certainly sincere. He views the Turkish state as the successor to the Ottoman empire, and thus himself as the successor to the sultans, who were not only the rulers of Jerusalem but also caliphs, i.e., supreme religious authorities. While Erdoğan might not see himself in quite so elevated terms, he does believe himself the natural leader of Sunni Islam, at least in its non-Wahhabi variety. Thus, in his eyes, he has a solemn duty to protest such slights against the faith, especially when they occur in his own backyard. And it doesn’t hurt that, by taking a stand on these issues, he crowns himself the defender of Muslims everywhere.
It should be no surprise, then, that the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was, for Erdoğan, the last straw. Thereafter Turkey downgraded relations once again, recalled its ambassador, and sent the Israeli ambassador home for “consultations.” Israel not only reciprocated but went a step further, asking the Turkish consul in Jerusalem to leave the country along with the ambassador. His Israeli counterpart in Istanbul then got the same treatment. Like the 2013 phone call, 2016’s move toward reconciliation turned out to be another empty gesture. Those who had been critical of either or both attempts could claim that they had been proved right once again.
IV. Making Allies and Needing Allies
To understand what has occurred since 2016, it’s necessary to turn away from Turkey and toward its traditional adversaries: Greece and Cyprus. Having seen the rift between Jerusalem and Ankara, the same year Athens and Nicosia began to deepen their ties with the Jewish state. There was also a more immediate reason, and prize, for improved relations: the vast supplies of natural gas that lay beneath the Eastern Mediterranean. In 2010, Cyprus and Israel signed an agreement delineating the maritime border between the two countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Greece soon joined the two in a collaborative effort to exploit their newfound hydrocarbon riches. But great as the economic incentives were, at the end of the day they merely served as a pretext: broader strategic logic lay behind the two Hellenic countries’ embrace of the Jewish one, as made clear by the defense-procurement agreements signed by the trio.
Later on, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt—another adversary of Erdoğan—joined this axis as well. The new East Med gas consortium planned to create a pipeline that originated in Israel and reached Italy via Greek and Cypriot coastal waters; from Italy the gas could be distributed across Europe. In Turkish eyes, the project constituted a national-security threat, since the pipeline would run through waters that Ankara believes to be its own. To fight back, in 2019 Turkey signed a conflicting maritime delimitation treaty with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA)—its preferred faction in that country’s civil war—creating a zone for itself that would cut right through the proposed East Med pipeline.
To demonstrate how seriously it took the goal of undermining the new natural-gas consortium, Ankara intervened in the Libyan civil war to keep the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned GNA from being wiped out by its Russia- and Egypt-backed Libyan National Army. Erdoğan also instructed his navy to begin routine violations of Cyprus’s EEZ. In an act of further escalation, a Turkish naval patrol ordered the Israeli research ship Bat Galim out of Cypriot waters. Lastly, Ankara decided to turn the Geçitkale airbase, in Turkish-ruled northern Cyprus, into an active launching site for drones. The message was clear: Turkey would assert its claims over the Eastern Mediterranean.
So far, this maritime saber-rattling has accomplished little, besides giving Turkey skeptics another chance to say, “I told you so.” But once again, exogenous events changed Ankara’s strategic calculations, this time in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. As was the case elsewhere, lockdowns and increased unemployment pummeled the economy. Aviation and tourism, normally important sources of revenue, were paralyzed. President Erdoğan’s ill-conceived forays into fiscal policy—jettisoning successive heads of the central bank, publicly opposing much-needed interest-rate hikes, and so forth—only worsened matters. In 2018, a dollar was worth 6.82 Turkish liras; by 2020, there were 8.42 liras to the dollar. Since then, the lira’s value has plummeted, with the exchange rate reaching 16.67 liras to the dollar in December of 2021.
But the pandemic only exposed a much more deeply rooted economic weakness, namely the legacy of Erdoğan’s 2016 crackdown on political opponents, which was followed the next year by constitutional reforms that strengthened the presidency. These undeniable signs of political instability and erosion of democracy and the rule of law spooked Western investors, who remain leery of the country.
For the past five years, the Turkish economy has avoided complete collapse because it has been propped up by hydrocarbon-rich Qatar. In return, Turkey established two military bases in Qatar to safeguard the small Gulf state from the threat of Saudi invasion. Apart from mutual interests, Qatari and Turkish leaders’ shared affinity with the global Muslim Brotherhood movement constituted an important factor in this alliance. The new Turkish-Qatari axis emerged to challenge a competing, more pro-Western bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE—and used Islamism to appeal to the masses among its rivals’ populace.
Siding with Qatar against these other states made perfect sense from Erdoğan’s perspective. He couldn’t forgive the Sisi regime in Egypt for overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammad Morsi, any more than Sisi can forgive him for supporting Morsi. Likewise, Ankara at that point could not easily forget Saudi officials’ murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil, and had other, more obscure claims against the UAE. In short, the alignment of Turkey and Qatar against the Saudis, Egyptians, and Emiratis made perfect sense.
But in the summer of 2020, the balance of power between these rival blocs shifted dramatically thanks to the signing of the Abraham Accords by Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain—with Saudi Arabia’s tacit blessing. Ironically Turkey, which has had normal diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949, objected loudly to the treaties, labeling them an infamous betrayal of the Palestinians. Turkish resentment derived in part from obvious ideological sentiments, but also from losing its unique status as the Muslim country in the Middle East with relations with Israel, and the leverage that status brought. (Of course, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco have all had diplomatic ties with Jerusalem for years, but the various troubles in these relationships have allowed Turkey the pretense of a monopoly.)
Finally, the Abraham Accords were a major blow for the Turkish aviation sector: Israeli tourists headed to the Far East had for years preferred to fly with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul; with the opening of Saudi airspace to flights from Israel, the UAE suddenly became an alternative hub for Israeli travelers.
At first, decision-makers in Ankara seem to have expected that the accords would disintegrate once Donald Trump left the White House. Instead, the new alliance has only grown stronger. Morocco and Sudan have joined in the process, and the positive atmosphere coming from the UAE suggests much deeper economic and people-to-people contacts than have emerged from any previous Arab-Israeli treaties. The Abraham Accords have also translated into better bilateral relations between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan. While Erdoğan hoped he could use this diplomatic breakthrough to establish himself as the lone principled voice in the Middle East standing up for the Palestinians, and against the Jews, he has instead been left more isolated than ever.
V. Ukraine and Abraham Shake Up the Middle East
The man who has thrown Erdoğan a lifeline, and a possible way out of his unenviable situation, is none other than Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and a key force behind the Abraham Accords. With the Biden administration following its two predecessors in trying to disentangle the U.S. from the Middle East, Mohammad bin Zayed has emerged as one of the region’s savviest and most dynamic leaders. His priorities are prosperity, sustainable economic growth, and fostering regional reconciliation. After making peace with Israel, he took the less headline-grabbing, but perhaps riskier, step of trying to do the same with Turkey.
Those efforts came to a head last November, when the sheikh made an official visit to Ankara and announced a plan to invest $10 billion in the faltering Turkish economy and begin a new era of good relations. This princely gift was not an act of generosity, but of ruthless Realpolitik. Having identified Turkey’s deteriorating economy as Erdoğan’s Achilles heel, Abu Dhabi realized that it can use its vast wealth to make him do its bidding. That includes, it seems, aligning Turkish foreign policy to the UAE’s.
The result was a normalization blitz, during which Turkey has attempted to reconcile with Israel, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabi in rapid succession. In March, Erdoğan hosted President Herzog in Ankara. The next month, he nominated a new Turkish ambassador to Egypt (the position has been unoccupied since 2013) and suspended the trial of Khashoggi’s assassins, letting it instead take place in the Saudi courts.
The Emirates’ successive normalizations with Israel and Turkey have immensely changed the prospects of Israeli-Turkish reconciliation. But there is also a third factor, of equal weight: the war in Ukraine.
Given the long history of Russo-Turkish rivalry, Erdoğan’s relations with the Kremlin have been surprisingly warm, if always ambivalent. After receiving across-the-board condemnation from Western capitals for his crackdown on the Gezi Park protests of 2013, Erdoğan began to strengthen ties with Russia and China, which had few scruples about domestic repression. Breaking with a traditional pro-Western policy that has its origins in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Turkey has fostered not only extensive trade and tourism, but also significant energy and defense cooperation, with its northern neighbor. The inauguration of the “Turkish Stream” natural-gas pipeline in 2020, the ongoing construction of the Russian-made Akkuyu nuclear reactor in the Mersin province, and Ankara’s purchase of the sophisticated S-400 anti-ballistic-missile system demonstrate the extent of this relationship.
Unsurprisingly the West did not welcome this new coziness with the Kremlin. The growing Russian penetration of Turkey raised skepticism about the latter’s position in NATO, and especially its access to advanced U.S.-manufactured technology, which could easily fall into Russian hands. But from Ankara’s perspective, NATO’s indifference towards Turkish security concerns had left it with no choice but to look to Moscow. NATO has not, for instance, supplied Turkey with the purely defensive Patriot anti-ballistic missiles. More importantly, Ankara—not entirely unreasonably—sees American support for the Kurdish YPG forces, which fought alongside the U.S. against Islamic State, as support for the closely aligned PKK.
Turkey of course has had its differences with Russia as well, but Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine since February has considerably changed Ankara’s perspective. Despite its many military setbacks, Russia has managed to extend somewhat its control over the Black Sea at the expense of Ukraine, unnerving Turkey, which sits on the southern shores of the same sea. Having seen the dangers of Russian aggression, Turkish decision-makers, as well as the broader public, appreciate NATO membership more than ever. Ankara has now begun, gradually, to reset its foreign policy, which means mending fences with the U.S., and the West more broadly.
Moving away from Russia and back toward America will inevitably entail the deterioration of relations with Iran. But this could be a boon for Ankara, which has been increasingly concerned by growing Iranian influence in the regions once ruled by the Ottoman empire. Iran-backed militias in Iraq killed a Turkish soldier last year, and the same militias have been cooperating with the Kurdish PKK, raising concerns that this entity could once again become a threaten Turkish security. Here Ankara’s interests dovetail neatly with Jerusalem’s, and cooperation against Tehran would benefit both.
VI. What Makes This Reconciliation Different?
Despite all these positive trends, anyone who remembers the Erdoğan-Netanyahu phone call of 2013 or the failed normalization of 2016 has ample reason to be skeptical. Past experience suggests that Erdoğan will try to reap the benefits of making nice with Israel in the short term, but sooner or later blow things up in order to shore up domestic support at home, or because he is irked by some Israeli policy, or simply by continuing to protect Hamas. “Is This Really a New Beginning?” read a headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz after Herzog’s recent visit. Another, less ambivalent one, warned “Beware Turkish Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” and its author, David M. Weinberg, declared himself “extraordinarily skeptical and extremely wary about nascent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.” What Israelis really want to know, then, is what makes this reconciliation different from all other reconciliations.
The answer is: quite a lot. This isn’t to say that this normalization effort can’t go the way of its predecessors, only that it is less likely to.
The most compelling reason for optimism is that the recent attempt at reconciliation has already endured its first real test, which came during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Despite the fact that Hamas-led provocations ignited a new terror wave, unlike in the past Erdoğan chose not to add fuel to the fire with fulsome condemnations, threats, or incitements to further violence. Nor did he retaliate diplomatically when the IDF killed Palestinian militants while conducting counterterror raids. On the contrary, he called his Israeli counterpart to discuss matters, and lowered the tension in the Turkish public by portraying himself as using normalization with Israel to benefit the Palestinians. Of course, after Israel stopped a Hamas-instigated riot at the Temple Mount, Erdoğan took to Twitter to “condemn Israel’s heinous attack” on al-Aqsa mosque. But such rhetorical condemnations did not prevent the foreign minister’s visit to Israel a few weeks later.
The change is also evident in Israel’s behavior. In previous reconciliation attempts, Jerusalem apologized and made concessions while getting little concrete in return. At issue in 2016 was which of Ankara’s demands Jerusalem would agree to, not what it would get in return. Now it is Israel demanding that Turkey expel Hamas from its borders, and it appears that it won’t agree to the exchange of ambassadors until Erdoğan sends the terrorist group packing.
Israel’s insistence on this point is extraordinary, and can be understood only as a product of a newfound self-confidence stemming from the Abraham Accords and the trilateral alliance with Greece and Cyprus. When Jerusalem first established relations with Ankara, it was poor, diplomatically isolated, and surrounded by enemies. Now the shoe is on the other foot: Israel is economically and militarily strong and embedded in a network of regional alliances, while Turkey is diplomatically isolated, dependent on Abu Dhabi, and teetering on the verge of economic collapse.
This is the real difference between now and 2016: for the first time in the two countries’ histories, the Jewish state has the upper hand. Turkey is no longer in a position to dictate terms, and it is no longer Israel that must accept whatever it can get.
Still, making normalization stick will require some creativity and sacrifice from both sides. Israel, which has a long history of cooperation with the Kurds, needs to show Turkey that it will distance itself from the PKK and its Syrian YPG affiliates, and draw a bright line between them and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which is less problematic from the Turkish perspective. To the contrary, Ankara itself is deepening its ties with the KRG, and thus Jerusalem has no need to risk its relationship with this ally.
In return, Turkey will have to show Israel that its support for Hamas is a thing of the past. Whether or not it will is anyone’s guess. All the Bennett government can do is stick to its guns and maintain its leverage by withholding its ambassador, while making clear that it is ready for a full normalization, and even robust cooperation when it comes to shared interests—but that it won’t look the other way when it comes to support for terror.
Simultaneously, Jerusalem must persuade Greece and Cyprus that mending fences with Ankara will not harm the trilateral alliance, and reassure Ankara that it need not feel threatened by this alliance. President Herzog evidently sought to do just that when he visited Athens and Nicosia shortly before his trip to Ankara. The message was clear to all: Israel will not sacrifice its strategic relations with Greece and Cyprus for a fragile normalization with Turkey.
It’s now up to Erdoğan to make the next move. Can he set aside a futile investment in the Palestinian cause for the more concrete goal of rapprochement with Israel? Can he choose to respond to Israel-Palestinian tensions with private conversations behind the closed doors of foreign ministries, rather than with public verbal fights? Doing so goes against his deeply held instincts and general worldview. It may also pose problems for him politically. One can only hope that his government will choose the national interest over ideology, and realize that such a choice can bring real benefits to the Turkish people, while support for Hamas has helped neither Turks nor Palestinians.
If Ankara wishes to show fealty to the Palestinian cause, it can do so in ways that won’t damage relations with Israel, and that might even bring real benefits to the Palestinians. Namely, it can improve and deepen relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is likely as unhappy as Israel with Erdoğan’s pro-Hamas stance. Erdoğan can then reap the political benefits of being publicly aligned with the Palestinians, without undermining rapprochement with the Jewish state.
But there is more that politics at stake here. The Turkish-sponsored industrial zone in the West Bank city of Jenin shows exactly how a smarter set of policies could benefit all three parties. While providing job opportunities to Palestinians, the industrial zone facilitates Turkish exports to both the PA and the Arab world. To send raw materials to landlocked Jenin, Turkey must use Israel’s port at Haifa, thus strengthening Israeli-Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian economic ties. In the long run, Turkey seeks to turn the Jenin industrial zone into its export hub for the Middle Eastern market. Apart from producing goods at the site, Turkey will use Jenin as a warehouse for its shipments to the entire region. The end result will be deeper commercial relations, and greater profits, for all three parties.
VII. Fantasies into Realities
Yet even if Ankara continues with such productive policies, Erdoğan’s ideology will remain unchanged. This spring’s flare-up of the Israel-Palestinian conflict didn’t derail normalization, but what about the next one? When another Gaza war comes—as it almost certainly will—and Turks watch footage of IDF jets bombing Palestinian cities, will Erdoğan really be able to make do with phone calls to Israeli leaders and a few condemnations? Or will he feel compelled to do something more drastic?
No one can answer these questions with any certainty. Despite the many reasons for optimism, it’s likely that, so long as Erdoğan remains in power, the relationship will remain fundamentally fragile, and won’t achieve the warmth of normalization with the UAE, or the durability of peace with Egypt. Those Israeli observers—and there are many—who argue against any overtures toward Turkey are quite rational to point this out. Yet they are wrong to conclude that rapprochement with Turkey is a chimera, or a lost cause not worth further investment.
Instead, Israel should stick to the course it is on now, striving for reconciliation while holding fast to its redlines—most importantly, its insistence that Ankara sever ties with Hamas. In the meantime, Jerusalem can enjoy the benefits of a temporary détente. Even a shaky peace can lay the groundwork for whatever and whoever comes after Erdoğan. If bilateral relations bring economic and security benefits—and even more so if they can foster people-to-people ties—it becomes more likely that Erdoğan’s successors will see the relationship with Israel as desirable.
Under such circumstances, a genuine and healthy normalization might be possible in a way that it isn’t now. That would pave the way for the natural next step, which is energy cooperation. The Biden administration has unfortunately come out against the East Med pipeline, but given the desperate need to decrease European dependency on Russian energy, one can only hope that that the EU and the U.S. will embrace this project. But the pipeline is far more likely to succeed if Turkish reservations are assuaged.
If there is genuine normalization between Jerusalem and Ankara, then the latter shouldn’t merely be asked to set aside its maritime counterclaims, but invited to become an active partner. Due to basic geographic and geological realities, the East Med pipeline will be most viable if it involves Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey, along with European partners and probably Egypt as well. Of course, such a scenario borders on science fiction. Turkish-Israeli reconciliation might be difficult to achieve, but nowhere near as difficult as reconciliation between Turkey and either Greece or Cyprus, whose conflict is simultaneously historical, ethnic, religious, and territorial, and has a longer history than the Arab-Israeli one.
Still, today’s fantasies have a way of becoming tomorrow’s realities. Five or ten years ago the Abraham Accords would have seemed equally far-fetched, let alone the idea that an Arab nation would use financial pressure to compel Turkey to reconcile with Israel. It would be foolish to risk the present for such unlikely scenarios, but it would be equally foolish to discount the possibility that they could come true, and not to prepare accordingly. Likewise, Turkey ought to prioritize its own immediate interests and not sacrifice its gains for destructive forces like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
In the meantime, there are intermediate steps that can be taken. Under the auspices of the United States and the European Union, the four Eastern Mediterranean countries—Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey—should come together to start issuing joint licenses to multinational companies to avoid the sort of disagreements that may stem from conflicts over maritime sovereignty. Such measures could facilitate future cooperation, while demonstrating to all four parties that cooperation is indeed possible. This axis can also be further strengthened if it includes Egypt.
If this vision could be realized, the EU would be able to decrease its dependency on Russia, while the U.S. would see Turkey once again integrated into its traditional place in the Western camp. This new prosperous environment may also create a domino effect, leading Lebanon and Syria to review their own policies. Perhaps they too will want to be included in the Abrahamic-Hellenic axis that is shaping the future of the Middle East. Israeli policymakers can’t afford to be anything but heard-headed and realistic about the present, but when it comes to the future they should remember David Ben-Gurion’s admonition: in Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.