Turkey and Israel: increasing signs of rapprochement 

turkey, israel, azerbaijan

By Ilgar Majidli, Ph.D. in Political Science 

Recently, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, announced his desire to promote the improvement of relations between Turkey and Israel, the states whose close relations with Azerbaijan played a significant role in its victory in the Second Karabakh War.

Tensions between Turkey and Israel have persisted for a decade, but in recent weeks both sides have signaled a potential improvement in relations. Turkey announced in December 2020 that it would appoint a new ambassador to Israel after a two-year hiatus. Roy Gilad, Israel’s outgoing chargé d’affaires in Turkey, also hinted at improving relations.

At the same time, the geopolitical context has changed significantly since 2010: the disputes over maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the expansion of Arab cooperation with Israel, have not previously been so high on the agenda. A significant consequence of the tensions between Israel and Turkey has been Israel’s rapprochement with Ankara’s regional rivals – Egypt and Greece. The three countries are developing cooperation based on energy and defense, which observers say is a reaction to Turkey’s increasingly assertive position in the region. In recent years, Israel has deepened relations with Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, vexing its longtime ally, Turkey. In July 2020, Israel ratified a deal on the East Mediterranean Pipeline project, which plans to lay a route from Israel to Greece. 

However, many experts still disagree about the cost of the pipeline and its technical feasibility. Israel, Egypt, Greece, the Greek Cypriot administration, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine created the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in 2019 to expand energy cooperation, excluding Turkey. Turkey, meanwhile, stresses that the Israel-Turkey gas pipeline, on which the two countries began negotiations in 2016, will be the fastest and cheapest route to Europe. Even though Israel and Turkey are restoring official diplomatic relations, there are still many controversial points. So it is not guaranteed that whether Israel will abandon alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean region in favor of exporting through Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkey is also unlikely to change its policy in the region. 

No change is foreseen in Turkey’s policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. The country will apparently continue drilling and use its legal share in the region following international law and the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nonetheless, one shouldn’t forget that Turkey is not an enemy of Israel. Ankara has always supported Tel Aviv, and as long as Turkey is in the region, Israel will be more comfortable in the Eastern Mediterranean. It takes two to tango, and now the initiative is seemingly on the side of Israel.

The decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Israeli security forces’ crackdown on Palestinian protests led Turkey and Israel to recall their ambassadors.

It can be admitted that the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States gave impetus to the establishment of relations between Turkey and this country. New perspectives are opening up with Biden. Joe Biden is set to take office after Trump’s four-year term, which saw the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements. Israel, in turn, is preparing for the fourth election in less than two years. While it is too early to speak of full-fledged rapprochement, improved ties could change positions on some regional issues.

Turkish President Rejep Tayyip Erdogan maintained a close relationship with Trump, but Biden’s presidency is projected to be more challenging for Ankara. Turkish-American relations are expected to be in a tough period, at least in the short term, given the Biden administration’s sensitivity to democracy and human rights issues. Given the anti-Turkish sentiment prevailing in the US Congress, Turkey can hope that Israel can neutralize the opposition and help Ankara win Washington’s favor again.

The current normalization of relations between several Arab countries and Israel was not yet visible in 2010. Turkey condemned the actions of the UAE and Bahrain, calling them “hypocritical” and threatening the Palestinian cause. The normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel was aimed in part at restraining Turkey, which was considered a threat. The thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations may upset Abu Dhabi, which has most probably made a bet that Israel will act as a de facto member of the anti-Turkish bloc of the Mediterranean and Middle East countries. UAE may try to dissuade Israelis from rapprochement with Turkey.

As this state is trying to establish itself in the Mediterranean. Supposedly, they will maneuver to prevent too much rapprochement, because the UAE is not considering such a possibility in the near future.

Many Palestinians continue to view Turkey as a key protector with effective political leverage. So the diplomatic mission will allow Turkey to become a more significant and acceptable player again, because currently the problematic relations with Israel do not allow Ankara to play a role in the Palestinian issue, despite all the statements made. Therefore, expanding opportunities for interaction, cooperation and communication can make Turkey a more relevant player.

Relations between Turkey and Israel remained tense following the Israeli army raid on the Turkish ship “Mavi Marmara.” 

The Turkish leadership continues to condemn Israel’s policies and military incursions into Palestinian territories, while Israel accuses Turkey of issuing passports to Hamas members, which Tel Aviv described as a “very unfriendly” move. Despite all the political stumbling blocks, Turkey and Israel have managed to maintain economic, intelligence, and security cooperation. There is a significant trust deficit between Turkey and Israel. Nevertheless, there are signs that Turkey and Israel want to avoid escalating tensions and are also exploring areas of bilateral cooperation.

Both sides will benefit strategically and economically from potential rapprochement. Over the past couple of years, Israel has raised its threat assessment from Turkey.

Thus, normalizing or at least de-escalating tensions, even if it is a cool world, will prevent a long-term threat scenario from coming to fruition and the two countries will maintain high-level intelligence and military cooperation despite existing tensions. Turkey is also a bulwark against Iranian influence in Syria.

The Israeli-Iranian proxy war in Syria has indeed escalated over the past year. Thus, the Iranian vector in Syria may become the third area where the Turks and Israelis can find common ground. Turkey’s economic interests are also involved in this equation. The country will benefit from improved relations with Israel. In addition to defense, security, and commercial ties, two countries can also collaborate on knowledge sharing in industry, agriculture, livestock, and tourism.

Turkey and Israel managed to find a common language during the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Israeli and Turkish drones played a significant role in Azerbaijan’s victory.

Turkey and Israel have overlapping interests in the Middle East, especially in terms of weakening Iran’s power and influence. Israel is normalizing its relations with several Muslim countries, and Turkey’s inclusion on the list will improve its conciliatory image in the international arena.

It can be expected that Israel will gain much from the normalization of relations. Turkey bought weapons from Israel. Both countries can again establish trade links. The defense industry of Turkey and Israel can develop jointly. Secondly, energy resources. Israel explores oil and gas. However, the country is home to only 8 million people. Where should they sell their oil and gas? The largest market is Turkey, which will open access to the European Union market through the pipeline.