Why Are So Many Observers Missing Turkey's Potential as an Israeli (and American) Ally?

Most American and Israeli foreign-policy thinkers are blind to what’s really going on in Turkey, the opportunities there are, and the challenges it presents.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul on June 14, 2022. YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul on June 14, 2022. YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.

June 28 2022
About the author

Michael Doran is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at Hudson Institute. The author of Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016), he is also a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He tweets @doranimated.

Even in the three weeks since Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak’s astute essay “Can a Renewed Alliance Between Israel and Turkey Stabilize the Middle East?” appeared in Mosaic, Israeli-Turkish rapprochement has widened and deepened. Just last Thursday, the Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid travelled to Ankara, where he was warmly received by his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who announced that the two countries are working toward an exchange of ambassadors.

Dramatic cooperation between the Israeli and Turkish intelligence services coincided with the meeting of the foreign ministers, demonstrating to both sides that their relations had progressed to a more productive stage. Prior to Lapid’s visit, Jerusalem had learned that an Iranian terror cell was plotting to attack Israeli targets in Istanbul and to kidnap a former Israeli ambassador and his wife who were vacationing in Turkey. After the intelligence was shared with Ankara, the two sides worked together at a level that was, according to the Israelis, exemplary. The Turks rolled up the cell without anyone being killed or wounded. Lapid proudly announced that “the lives of Israeli citizens have been saved thanks to security and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and Turkey.”

The growing warmth between Jerusalem and Ankara obviously discomfits Iran and its proxies. Even before Lapid returned home, the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei sacked the official responsible for the botched operation in Istanbul. On the same day, Hizballah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah met with Hamas’s political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh in Beirut, their first meeting in one year. According to Hamas and Lebanese sources, the two discussed the threat to their interests posed by growing Israeli-Turkish cooperation.

This threat is no figment of their imaginations. Israel and Turkey are the two most powerful military and intelligence actors in the region, and the relations of each of them with the Gulf States are improving. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords two years ago, Israel has moved closer not only to the United Arab Emirates, but also to Saudi Arabia. The UAE meanwhile—as Yanarocak explains in his essay—has buried the hatchet with Turkey after years of undisguised hostility. If Israel, Turkey, and the Gulf States could join forces to advance common interests, they could shift the balance of power against Iran in the Arab world. In Syria, especially, they could severely curtail its influence in ways that none of them could do on its own.

But many American and Israeli observers of the Middle East have been slow to recognize the potential of partnering with Turkey. Even now, some remain overtly hostile even to the idea of trying. In their evaluation, the recent terror plots are not signs of Turkey’s willingness to work with Israel’s security forces, but instead are themselves symptoms of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s supposedly permissive attitude toward the Islamic Republic. But this analysis has it backwards: a major goal behind these thwarted attacks is to drive a wedge between Ankara and Jerusalem. The proof is that Turkey has foiled several of them in the last year, including, for instance, the attempt to assassinate the Turkish-Israeli businessman Yair Geller in February.

The same skeptical observers have put forth other arguments about why real Israel-Turkish cooperation is impossible. “Erdoğan is an Islamist and an anti-Semite,” was one common talking point among pro-Israel commentators. “He is an ally of Russia and Putin’s Trojan Horse within NATO,” was another. “He is working hand in glove with Iran” was yet a third. These assertions are part of a broader perspective shared still by many well-meaning observers in both Washington and Israel, which might be dubbed “the neo-Ottoman thesis.” The former national security advisor John Bolton summed up its main points in an interview with a Greek newspaper last year. “Erdoğan is pursuing . . . an Islamicist policy, and he has aspirations in the Middle East that really hearken back to the days of the Ottoman empire,” he said. “Much of what he’s done is a rejection of the post-World War I settlement.”

This perspective isn’t so much baseless as it is shallow. Regardless of how one feels about Erdoğan, the neo-Ottoman thesis failed to prepare us for the rapid change in relations between Turkey and Israel. It suffers from what Soner Çağaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—who, to put it mildly, is no great admirer of the Turkish president—labels “Reductio ad Erdoğanum”: the tendency to depict every one of Turkey’s policies as reflecting its leader’s ideological agenda. Thankfully, Yanarocak deftly steers the conversation away from such arguments. Bringing to the subject the judiciousness and sobriety of an accomplished historian, he recognizes that Turkey is much bigger than Erdoğan and that any serious analysis must reflect that fact.

Among themselves, Turks commonly distinguish between “state policies,” which rest on a consensus of the national-security elite, and “government policies,” which are the preferences of the current government. The neo-Ottoman thesis misleads us into believing that a punitive American posture toward Erdoğan will hasten his departure, which, in turn, would radically change Turkish foreign policy, bringing it into alignment with the United States and Europe. It will not. Most of the policies that have led the Turks to butt heads with the West are, in fact, state policies that have little to do with Erdoğan’s personal aspirations or with Islamism. And on most of these a pragmatic accommodation acceptable to both sides is achievable—provided the West approaches Turkey without misconceptions and with a readiness to compromise.

Consider, for example, the tensions in recent years between Turkey and its neighbors over the plan to build the East Med pipeline, which would connect Israeli gas fields to Europe through Cyprus and Greece. A welter of analyses in Washington, including many from pro-Israel circles, depicted the Turkish position as the product of Islamist-fueled neo-Ottoman aggression. It often escaped notice that Erdoğan’s opposition to Greece’s plans rested on a strategic consensus in Turkey. Even Erdoğan’s political rivals oppose Athens’s claims.

While Yanarocak does not assert this point explicitly, his analysis tacitly admits as much. Although he urges Israel to hold fast to its burgeoning alliance with Greece and Cyprus—Turkey’s traditional antagonists—he nonetheless argues that Ankara “shouldn’t merely be asked to set aside its maritime counterclaims” against Greece and Cyprus, but instead be “invited to become an active partner.” The reason for this is straightforward. “Due to basic geographic and geological realities,” Yanarocak continues, “the East Med pipeline will be most viable if it involves Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey.” Turkey, in short, has its own reasonable claims, and compromise is possible.

This point merits further attention. Just two years ago, the French president Emmanuel Macron, in a show of support for Greece and Cyprus, dispatched warships to the Mediterranean while convening an emergency EU summit to mull sanctions on Turkey. Many voices in American pro-Israel circles lined up reflexively behind Macron and the Greeks. At that time, the mere suggestion that Turkey was preferable to Greece as a partner for building a pipeline was met with derision. Today, however, discussions of the topic between Ankara and Jerusalem are well underway.

Due credit for this transformation must be given to the Biden administration. On January 18, 2022, the White House informed Athens that the United States no longer supported the East Med pipeline. Although the decision was not made with an eye to promoting Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, it had that effect almost instantaneously. To understand why, it helps to realize that, as a practical commercial venture, the undersea pipeline from Israel to Greece via Cyprus had always been something of a fantasy. No energy company would ever have invested in the project; it would simply have been too costly. The Greeks advanced it less as a serious commercial venture than as a tool for mobilizing international support for its maritime claims against Turkey. That’s not to say that a pipeline bringing Israeli gas to Europe via Greece and Italy isn’t economically viable—but that it can only be made so if it first goes from Israel’s fields directly to Turkey, which is much closer.

Among themselves, senior Israeli officials have long understood these elementary facts, but their alliance with Greece did not allow them to admit as much in public. In his last years as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu received a proposal, submitted by an interested power, to build the pipeline to Turkey, but was compelled to reject it. According to two people I consulted with knowledge of the discussions, Netanyahu said, in reference to the Greeks (as well as the Cypriots and Emiratis), “We must avoid upsetting our new allies.”

Maintaining the alliance with Athens thus required Israel: 1) to refrain from striking a deal with Turkey on gas, even though Greece is already Turkey’s partner in the southern gas corridor, which brings Azerbaijani gas to Italy; 2) to maintain the pretense that the pipeline from Israel directly to Greece was actually a viable venture; and 3) to support Greece against Turkey in a bilateral conflict over issues that, in and of themselves, were not germane to Israel’s national interests. Once the Americans stopped underwriting Greece’s East Med fantasy, the Israelis were free to open negotiations with the Turks.

This salutary development in Turkish-Israeli relations lies beyond the imagination of the proponents of the neo-Ottoman thesis. For years, they have been urging the United States to punish Turkey by, for example, throwing it out of NATO, sanctioning it aggressively, replacing American military installations in Turkey with bases in Greece, supporting Greek claims in the Aegean and Mediterranean, and increasing supporting for Turkey’s PKK-affiliated Kurdish adversaries in Syria. This punitive agenda, when advanced by elements of the pro-Israel community, needlessly embroils the Jewish state in conflicts—between Turks and Kurds, Turks and Greeks, etc.—that do not involve it.

None of this is to deny that Israel has several serious and legitimate grievances against Turkey and its current president. Foremost among them is Turkey’s support for Hamas. Those legitimate grievances notwithstanding, Yanarocak’s recommendations indicate that he understands the crucial fact that at present the Turkish-Israeli relationship is, to a significant extent, a hostage to conflicts over which Jerusalem has little influence.

It is especially vulnerable to the vicissitudes in the relations between the West and Turkey, for in significant ways Turkey’s relationship to Israel is but a function of its relationship with the American-led order. If the West, and most importantly America, can find a way to accommodate Turkish security needs, Ankara will be more inclined to get along with Israel. Conversely, if the West adopts a punitive agenda against Turkey, Ankara’s relations with Jerusalem will likely suffer. Yanarocak’s analysis leads inevitably to this conclusion, even if he stopped short of drawing it.

He might have gone one step further still and argued that American support for Turkish-Israeli normalization is the crucial missing ingredient. Indeed, the current rapprochement is, as he says, fragile; it may well falter unless the United States consciously nurtures it. But to do so, Washington must relearn the basic rules of responsible superpower behavior.

The main job of the United States in the Middle East is to build a regional order that allows its critical allies—Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—to manage their security challenges within its confines. It is America’s responsibility to foster, in close consultation with its allies, a shared vision of regional stability, and to assign roles and missions to achieve it. At times, the U.S. must also run interference among these allies, who are a fractious lot. If it uses its clout to work out compromises among them when necessary, America can both keep the peace and maintain a powerful coalition against its own most serious strategic opponents—China, Russia, and Iran.

But Washington has shirked these responsibilities. In the last decade it has repeatedly courted Iran and attempted, time and again, to turn Russia into a partner for stabilizing the region. Failure to organize opposition to the Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria has allowed Moscow, especially, to become the player to which both Turkey and Israel must turn respectfully in order to manage their security dilemmas. For reasons both moral and geostrategic that hardly need explication, having Vladimir Putin in this position is undesirable.

If the United States pursues a regional vision dedicated to weakening Russia and Iran, it will lay the foundation for an enduring Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. Doing so will involve, however, maintaining a healthy regard for Turkey’s conception of its own national interest—to say nothing of its raw capabilities. Israel’s friendships with Greece, Cyprus, and the UAE certainly have their place, but they are no substitute for a productive relationship with Turkey.

Yanarocak notes that David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the Jewish state, said that, in Israel, to be a realist you must believe in miracles. In the years before World War I, Ben-Gurion was an “Ottomanist,” one of those who believed that the future of Zionism depended on an alliance with the Ottomans. With that goal in mind, he learned Turkish and studied law at Istanbul university. In donning a fez he was not hoping to hasten miracles. He was reading power realities, astutely and unemotionally, and adjusting his course accordingly.

Today, Israel is strong and established, and it need not kowtow to Turkey. But its small size and special vulnerabilities still force it to live by its wits. Neither the Jewish state nor its friends have the luxury of entertaining the neo-Ottoman thesis, which misconstrues the Turkish challenge, obscures potential opportunities and, worst of all, entangles Israel in conflicts that do not concern it.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Middle East, Turkey