The break in relations between Israel and Turkey is often identified as happening in May 2010, when the Israel Navy took control of the Mavi Marmara protest ship that was on its way to Gaza.
Nine protesters were killed during the operation, all Turkish citizens.
The response was harsh. Turkey announced it was suspending all joint military exercises with Israel, the families of Israel’s diplomats were returned home. Formally, the issue was resolved after Israel apologized in 2013, an apology that included compensation. But relations never went back to normal.
And they won’t. Not because of Israel, whose efforts to turn back the wheel were a strategic mistake, but because of internal changes in Turkey. In the past few years Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making good on his earlier statement that “democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.”
One after the other he has removed power from the gatekeepers of democracy in Turkey – first the military, then the courts and the media.
At first he pretended it was to bring order without undermining Turkey’s democratic values, but when faced with the weak response of the Western world he became increasingly confident. The attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016 became a successful coup for him. From that moment on he didn’t even pretend that Turkey is still a democracy.
Instead he is positioning Turkey as a predominant Muslim country.
As time goes on Turkey is becoming more aggressive, more Ottoman and mostly more Islamic. In the main Middle East conflict between the Saudi Axis and the Iranian Axis, Erdogan chose a side. He positioned himself at the center of the Iranian-Turkish-Qatari axis that receives backing (albeit qualified) from the Russians. This axis is far more important for Erdogan than the alliance with Israel. It allows him to manage the campaign against Kurdish independence – a central pillar of Turkish foreign policy – and to create a role for Turkey in the Syrian conflict.
That axis is anti-Israel. Obviously, the Iranians lead a harsh line on that front, but Turkey is becoming more vocal and aggressive. This serves Turkey’s geo-political ambitions but we shouldn’t overlook the personal element.
Erdogan is a strict Muslim who not only employs aggressive antisemitic rhetoric but believes it with all his heart. In the 1970s he wrote a play in which he presented the Jews as a source of evil in the world.
He compared Israel to the Nazis on multiple occasions and a report by the Foreign Ministry proved that he encourages the spread of antisemitism in Turkey. In 2013, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center published its list of the world’s leading antisemites, Erdogan was No. 2.
Erdogan doesn’t shy away from involving himself in Israel’s internal issues. He funnels money to Islamist organizations including to Raed Salah and his Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement as well as to the previous mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrima Sabri (according to an investigation doing by Nadav Shragai and published in Israel Hayom).
Turkey funded part of the incitement around the Temple Mount through organizations that were later banned. During the recent crisis around the Temple Mount he called on Muslims from across the world to go to Jerusalem and protect al-Aksa Mosque from Israeli soldiers who are “defiling al-Aksa with their combat boots.”
In light of all this, it isn’t clear why Israel continues to kowtow before Turkey. Erdogan’s treatment of Israel is not going to improve. If anything, we can expect it to get worse as his relations with Iran continue to strengthen and the Islamization of Turkey gathers pace.
In the past it was Israel’s security establishment that supported efforts to maintain the relationship. Not only because Turkey is a regional superpower but also because the IDF and the Turkish military carried out joint exercises. That argument has been weakened as Erdogan tightened his grip on the military.
Israel simply cannot trust the Turks any longer when it comes to military cooperation. With regards to intelligence sharing the situation is even worse. In 2013, for example, The Washington Post published proof that Turkey handed over to Tehran the names of 10 Iranians who were allegedly spying for Israel.
The main argument for Israel’s weakness is the hope of the current government to sign a huge gas deal with Turkey that will include the creation of Israel-Turkish gas pipeline.
The government’s behavior in this regard is strange to say the least. Turkey imports the natural gas it needs from Russia and Iran. There is no chance that it will reduce its imports from allies in order to buy from a country with which there is open conflict. Israel, from our perspective, cannot allow a hostile and volatile country to become a customer we are economically dependent on. Despite all that, last March the energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Bloomberg that he hoped to “conclude by this summer a government-to-government agreement on a gas pipeline stretching from Israel to Turkey.” That hasn’t happened, and it can’t be allowed to happen.
Above all the pragmatic considerations there is another, more important, consideration: national pride. Anyone who underestimates that element doesn’t understand the Middle East. Countries in this region watch as Turkey walks all over Israel time after time and how Israel keeps going back for more. That undermines our deterrence, undermines our ability to build relations with the Saudi Axis, and undermines our ability to protect our key strategic interests from other countries. A proud, sovereign country cannot behave like that in the long term.
There has several steps Israel can take to signal to Turkey that the era of kowtowing before it is over.
We can, and should, support the Kurds in their desire for an independent state and we should help them get recognition in Washington. The time is ripe after the contribution the Kurds made to the fight against ISIS and there is no reason for Israel not to help them and gain another friend in the region.
We can also (and should from a moral perspective) recognize the Armenian genocide where 1.5 million of their people were murdered by the Turks.
In addition, Israel should raise, either directly or through the United States, the question of Turkey’s membership in NATO and why an Islamist country that supports the Muslim Brotherhood remains a member. We should raise with the Trump administration the question of whether it might be time to reassess storing tactical nuclear weapons in an Islamic state, as the United States does at the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.
We once had a great relationship with Turkey. That’s over. It’s time for Israel to recognize this and act accordingly.
MK Yair Lapid is the chairman of Yesh Atid, a former member of the security cabinet and a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee for Intelligence and the Secret Services.