Commentary: Could the Turkish tide turn?

The path to renewed cooperation with Ankara runs through Syria and the Palestinian track

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IS RECONCILIATION between Turkey and Israel possible? Israel-Turkey relations haven’t always been so antagonist. On the contrary, they have been characterized by sharp ups and downs. And the key question is whether given the shifting Middle Eastern sands, new common interests can be found and the current downturn reversed.
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in March 1949. For years after that close strategic ties evolved between Jerusalem and Ankara, especially during periods of secular and/or military regimes in Turkey.
In those halcyon days, there was high- level military and intelligence cooperation, especially regarding the common Syrian threat, as well as a significant expansion of trade and tourism. Successive Israeli governments and the Jewish lobby in Washington consistently supported Turkey on the sensitive issue of the Armenian massacre on Turkish soil during World War I.
However, from time to time, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and especially the question of East Jerusalem, emerged from the shadows to weigh the relationship down. For example, after the Knesset decided in July 1980 to extend Israeli sovereignty to East Jerusalem, Ankara lowered its diplomatic mission in Israel from embassy to second secretary level; and in response to Israel’s military action in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, in which over 50 Palestinians, mainly fighters, were killed, Turkey’s then prime minister, the secular Bulent Ecevit accused Israel of “genocide.”
On the accession to power of the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March 2003, Israel-Turkey relations gradually deteriorated in virtually all spheres, apart from the economic. This was often directly connected to events related to Gaza, which became something of an obsession for Erdogan.
He took extremely harsh positions during and after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (December 2008-January 2009); the Mavi Marmara affair in May 2010, in which eight Turkish nationals and an American of Turkish descent were killed during the IDF’s boarding of a Turkish-operated vessel, part of a flotilla challenging Israel’s blockade of Gaza; Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in November 2012; and, most recently, Operation Protective Edge in July-August 2014, in which an estimated 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, were killed during seven weeks of Israeli aerial and ground retaliation against Palestinian rocket fire.
After Israel’s refusal to apologize for the Marmara affair, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended military ties in September 2011. This was followed by a stream of tough statements by Turkish leaders, most notably Erdogan himself. For example: “Israel is a terrorist state that massacres innocent children” (November 2012)… “There will not be normal relations with Israel as long as the aggression against the Palestinian territories continues” (July 2014)… “(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu… carries out state terrorism” (January 2015).
In March 2013, after a long delay and mainly at Washington’s instigation, the Israeli government finally apologized for the Mavi Marmara affair and offered compensation to the families of the victims. But, apart from trade, relations failed to improve and further deadlock ensued. At this point, Netanyahu, who had apologized to Erdogan in person, apparently reached the conclusion that the Turkish leader was inherently hostile to Israel and that, given his Islamist convictions, pro-Palestinian sympathies and unbridled anti-Semitism, nothing would change for the better as long as he was at the helm.
In parallel, the Israeli government took steps to create an alternative strategic axis with Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria. Israel also subtly shifted its position on the Armenian massacre. In late April, it sent a first ever Knesset-level delegation to an official ceremony marking the mass killings, the 100th anniversary commemoration in Yerevan. These moves will undoubtedly further offend Turkish sensibilities and widen the rift between the two countries.
The critical question is whether it is still possible to rehabilitate Israeli-Turkish ties given a raft of new, ostensibly common strategic interests in a changing Middle East. Chief of these is the potential threat posed to both Israel and Turkey by the growing power of Shi’ite Iran and its extensive influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and most recently Yemen.
Turkish and Israeli interests on the Iranian- Shi’ite question, however, are not identical. Netanyahu sees in a nuclearizing Iran an existential threat and aims to neutralize it at almost any price. Erdogan’s position is far more nuanced. Given his aspiration to lead the Sunni Muslim world, he is extremely concerned at Iran’s growing power and regional influence. He has accused Iran of being intent on regional hegemony, which he declared was “intolerable and should not be allowed to happen.” Turkey has also bolstered its shaky ties with leading Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and supported the Arab military coalition against Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen.
Nevertheless, in an early April visit to Tehran, Erdogan went out of his way to be friendly and conciliatory. The fact is Turkey is afraid of provoking an increasingly powerful Iran, which has both Russian military backing (for example, promised delivery of state-of-the-art S-300 anti- aircraft missiles) and American support in the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Moreover, the upcoming nuclear agreement between Iran and the powers seems set to confer on Iran international legitimacy and with it even greater economic power. Turkey, for all its differences with Iran, is extremely reliant on the Iranian economy, especially for gas and oil imports. Moreover, the annual bilateral trade volume is over $14 billion. These are interests Turkey cannot afford to surrender.
Turkey and Iran also have common regional interests. For example, preventing the establishment of a Pan-Kurdish state, which would be liable to extend into parts of their respective territories. Both also support the territorial integrity of Syria, including sovereignty over the Kurdish enclave in the north, but are divided over the identity of the desired central regime. While Tehran backs the Alawite Bashar Assad, Ankara aims to topple him and to bring about a Sunni regime led by the Islamist Muslim Brothers.
Israel, for its part, is opposed to the Brothers taking over in Syria and for years preferred to work with Bashar Assad as the secular “devil you know” and a possible buffer against radical Islam.
Recently, however, there have been signs of a change in the Israeli position, in light of extensive cooperation between Damascus, Tehran and Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah to create a new front with Israel on the Golan Heights. This new threat could conceivably spawn renewed cooperation between Israel and Turkey (together with Saudi Arabia) with the aim of toppling the Assad regime and neutralizing the key Syrian link in the regional Shi’ite chain.
The most important move Israel could make, however, would be on the Palestinian track. An Israeli initiative for a solution to the Palestinian problem could facilitate reconciliation with Turkey and the entire Sunni Muslim world. Turkey, which has close ties with both the PLO and Hamas, could even help mediate between them and Israel.
All this requires a bold Israeli initiative. Success would by no means be assured. But the prize, a diplomatic solution with the Palestinians and reconciliation with most of the Sunni Muslim world, including Turkey, makes the effort well worthwhile. 
Moshe Maoz is professor emeritus at the Hebrew University’s department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies