As Israel’s new government is formed, it will be tasked with dealing with a number of foreign policy challenges and successes that the last government handed it. One interesting aspect of this is the story of Israel-Turkey ties.
Turkey and Israel had very bad relations during the last decade, and only over the last year and a half have those ties shifted. This was very much a decision by Turkey and its ruling AKP party. Ankara’s leadership is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and backs Hamas and they systematically destroyed relations with Israel over the last decade. Netanyahu knows Turkey’s policies well and has long experience dealing with Ankara’s threats and its previous “reconciliation.”
From Ankara’s perspective, it is Israel’s fault. Turkey wanted to play an increased role in Israel-Palestinian discussions and also Israel-Syria talks in the early 2000s. Ankara’s government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted to shift Ankara’s policies in general in the region, to embrace a more Islamic foreign policy and also one that was more linked to Asia. However, Ankara also wanted “zero problems” with its neighbors.
Turkey had wanted to play a role in peace deals between Israel and others, but it felt betrayed by Operation Cast Lead and the war in Gaza. It wanted to empower Hamas and saw Hamas being defeated on the battlefield with casualties piling up.
Later, when Netanyahu came to power, far-right Turkish Islamic activists sought to organize a flotilla to Gaza in 2010. They sailed toward Gaza on the Mavi Marmara and Israel conducted a raid of the ship. After Israeli soldiers were attacked they responded and ten Turkish citizens were killed. This became an excuse for Ankara to reduce ties even further.
During the Syrian civil war, Turkey became more embroiled in conflicts. It backed extremists and began to confront Greece, Egypt, and the Gulf states. When Israel and the UAE were heading toward the Abraham Accords, Turkey threatened to break ties with the UAE to prevent the accords. It wanted to isolate Israel.
Ankara also wanted to prevent energy deals between Israel, Cyprus and Greece. Ankara was angered by the US moving the embassy to Jerusalem. All of this led to increased tensions in 2019-2020. Turkey had close friends in the Trump administration and it felt empowered toward more extreme behavior.
This had the result of Ankara working with Russia on deals for the S-400 and being expelled from the F-35 program. When Ankara saw it couldn’t isolate Israel and it saw that Trump would lose the 2020 election, it began to pivot back towards reconciliation.
What was the consideration behind Ankara's choice to reconcile?
Ankara’s decision to reconcile had several elements. It wants support for pro-Israel voices in Washington. In the past, Turkey has worked with Jewish organizations to try to influence the US. For instance, it used to lobby to get people to deny the Armenian genocide and it would try to influence pro-Israel voices to go to bat for it in this bizarre cause.
Ankara sought to turn to pro-Israel voices in 2020, claiming it could work with Israel on energy deals and that it might even reduce ties to Hamas. However, the leadership in Ankara was giving Hamas red carpets and media reports in the UK showed how close the ties between Ankara and Hamas had become.
For Ankara, the real prize was to have Netanyahu out of office. It hinted that reconciliation could come once he left power. The opportunity came in 2019 but then there was the pandemic and endless elections in Israel. When Israel’s finally had a new government in June 2021, Ankara made its move.
By August 2022 the reconciliation was in full tilt. Normalization occurred and ambassadors were appointed. Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Turkey in October. Israel’s President Isaac Herzog went to Turkey in March. In May Turkey’s foreign minister had come to Israel. Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid met with Erdogan in September.
Erdogan also met US Jewish groups in September. This was a big shift from 2018 and 2019 when Turkey’s leader had compared Israel to Nazi Germany. Israeli and Jewish leaders never demanded Ankara apologize for comparing Israel to the Nazis before normalizing ties. Instead, the message was Ankara can host Hamas terrorists and compare Israel to Nazis and it will still have friends in Jerusalem.
The results of not making Ankara change its policies has resulted in Israel rushing back to “reconcile” before Netanyahu takes office, while Ankara continues to bash Israel. Turkey’s President falsely claimed that Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo suffered a “political ban” at the World Cup because he supports Palestinians.
For some in Israel, the reconciliation is good because they view Turkey as a strong country that was a historic partner. Turkey is a member of NATO, even though currently it is working to block Sweden from joining NATO and threatening NATO-member Greece. Ankara has also hinted that it shares Israel’s concerns about Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq. However, Turkey also trades with Iran and does deals with Russia and Iran.
Nevertheless, for some policy analysts, Turkey is very important and it’s preferable to have it having ties with Israel, as opposed to working against Israel. In this view, Israel and Turkey can work on some issues together and “compartmentalize” relations. Ankara will host Hamas, but Ankara and Israel can also do trade deals. There are questions about whether the outgoing government didn’t do enough in terms of ties with Greece, in order to get renewed ties with Turkey.
At the end of the day, the preconceptions about the relationship still underpin its problems. Ankara’s leadership doesn’t see Israel as an equal. They believe Israel needs Turkey which is why they felt no problems comparing Israel to the Nazis. They don’t compare Iran to Nazi Germany, because they respect Iran. They don’t host anti-Iran groups the way they host Hamas. This shows that Ankara’s real friends are in Tehran and Moscow and other countries it respects.
Meanwhile, some in Israel continue to see Turkey the way it was in the 1980s when Israel was more isolated and weaker than it is today. Today Israel has F-35s and Israel has the leading air defense technology in the world. Turkey is trying to build its own military technology, but it is still trying to catch up.
Nevertheless, it may be in Israel’s interests not to have Ankara inflaming tensions in Gaza and Jerusalem. Ankara wants to play a role as a leader of Islamic causes and it has previously said it wants to “liberate” Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. These religious issues can be flammable and Israel already faces concerns from Jordan about status quo changes in Jerusalem.
Now with Netanyahu coming back to power, it is unclear if Ankara will use this occasion to harm the normalization and reconciliation, or whether it will adopt a wait-and-see approach. Turkey has upcoming elections and it may wager that inflaming problems with Israel could help it at home. On the other hand, it also has other problems in Europe and it is working with Russia to reconcile with the Syrian regime, it may not be able to do all these policies at the same time. Ankara already has a stoked crisis with Greece.
With Netanyahu back in power Turkey’s leadership will be dealing with a known quantity. Netanyahu believes in peace through strength. He has never backed down when Ankara incites against Israel. He has supported Kurdish issues and has always been willing to stand up to Turkey when it is necessary. Ankara knows this and will have to weigh whether it’s worth creating a crisis, or whether it is better to continue the present course.
Having just welcomed Israeli diplomats back, it would be strange for Ankara to create a crisis suddenly. Similarly, having worked to get back on track with meetings with US Jewish leaders, creating another crisis would seem odd. However, as Erdogan is fond of telling Greece, Turkey “may come suddenly one night,” a reference to military threats and how it conducts foreign policy. Ankara may decide one night to suddenly create a new crisis with Israel, in which case Netanyahu will have to judge how to respond.