An (Un)Holy Alliance? 

Renewing Turkey-Israel Relations on Erdogan’s cards may appear new but Turkey has always been close yet unreliable with Israel

By Haris Rashid

TURKEY is desperately trying to rehabilitate its ties with Israel. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s president Isaac Herzog have talked thrice since the latter assumed office in July 2021. Erdogan, this week, told reporters that Herzog may visit Turkey soon. The Turkish president also expressed a revival of interest in the transportation of Israeli natural gas to Europe through Turkey. The comments on the EastMed pipeline by Erdogan came days after the US withdrew its support from the project which consisted of Israel and a group of countries, including Turkey’s historic rival Greece. The pipeline was controversial as Turkey and Israel had previously planned to cooperate on the project but the negotiations failed in 2016 after Turkey condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza Strip. Israel went ahead with an alternative that excluded Turkey, outraging Ankara over the plans to bypass it.

This warming up to Israel by Erdogan follows a year of Turkey’s battered economy. Further, even though Turkey is formally a NATO ally, its relations with the US are in deep crisis. The US recently imposed CAATSA sanctions on Turkey over the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. Historically, Turkey has been oriented towards the West but it is now trying to reshape its foreign policy to suit it to the multipolar system of the world that is seeing the rise of powers like China and Russia. It is in this context of striking the balance between the West and the East that Turkey’s relations with Israel come in.

Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the state of Israel. It formally recognized Israel nine-months after it came into existence in March 1949. Turkey also happened to be the first country in the Middle East and Asia to recognize Israel. This relationship between the two countries was solidly based on mutual interests and common strategic goals. The circumstances in which Israel came into existence and its quest for legitimacy made it important for Israel to have relations with Turkey. Therefore, Israel viewed the non-Arab Muslim majority Turkey in the vicinity, as a key to breaking its isolation. For Turkey’s rulers, relations with Israel were politically expedient. At that time, the relations with Israel were the bellwether of its commitment to Western orientation. Hence, the reasons for the establishment of relations with Israel included help in Turkey’s relations with the West and access to American credit mechanisms.

Turkey-Israel relations went into a deep freeze in 2010 when Israeli commandos stormed and killed ten Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara, a ship that was part of an aid flotilla trying to breach the blockade of Gaza. Israel later apologized and provided compensation to the families of those who were killed. Bilateral relations were normalized in 2016 but when the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2018, relations again deteriorated with Turkey expelling the Israeli ambassador and withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

Despite all these confrontations, Israel holds an important position in Turkey’s politics and economy. The bilateral trade has been decoupled from politics.

As is evident from the chart on bilateral trade, the political issues between the two countries did not affect the trade. Politically, Turkey’s relations with Israel are expedient. When Turkey feels it has something to gain from the friendship with Israel, it normalizes ties and when it thinks it can profit from snapping ties with Israel, it downgrades relations with Israel. It can be said that there is an inherent tension that has always defined Turkish-Israeli relations. On the one hand, Turkey used Israel’s leverage in corridors of power, particularly in the United States, to accrue benefits in state interests, strategic priorities and security. On the other hand, the Turkish public has always been sympathetic to the cause of Palestinians. Therefore, due to domestic pressure, the politicians in Ankara cannot ignore the Palestinian issue completely. Right now, as Erdogan reaches out to Israel for mending relations, the leaders in Israel are wary that Erdogan wants to leverage the normalized relations to improve the economy of the country as well as his image. After achieving these goals, Erdogan may do with the relations whatever he wishes depending on the kind of issues he would be facing. In the case of domestic politics, normal ties with Israel will not be helpful but in the case of international issues, friendship with Israel can always pay off.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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