Israel-Turkey rapprochement is about re-establishing trust - opinion

It is important to include feelings of trust, along with their negative feelings of mistrust, in the rapprochement between Ankara and Jerusalem.

 NATALI OKNIN (center) and her husband Mordi, jailed for photographing a Turkish presidential palace, greet well-wishers after their arrival home in Modi’in in November.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
NATALI OKNIN (center) and her husband Mordi, jailed for photographing a Turkish presidential palace, greet well-wishers after their arrival home in Modi’in in November.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

There have only been relatively few attempts to utilize the element of the diplomacy of emotions in Israel’s foreign policy. These have generally focused on honor, which is central to Middle Eastern diplomacy. Emotions are another layer, with complementing and challenging foreign policy interests that are perceived by many as purely rational.

I will briefly explain why it is important to include feelings of trust, along with their negative feelings of mistrust, in the rapprochement between Ankara and Jerusalem. Trust and mistrust are intertwined in a variety of ways. The focus of this short piece is on the collective and personal dimensions of these emotions and will help us better understand the Israel-Turkey rapprochement.

Moreover, the rational interests of leaders or nations can also be expressed through emotions compatible with them. Leaders may communicate emotions in public discourse in order to gain the public’s support. Throughout Israel-Turkey relations over the past decade, mistrust has provided a great paradigm of how and why emotions can be harnessed to achieve rational goals and objectives.

The following examples illustrate the shift from focusing on distrust to building trust in certain periods.

Firstly, the relations between Israel and Turkey reveal mixed feelings among the Israeli public: On one hand, a complete lack of trust; on the other, trust and even love for Turkish hospitality. Turkey evokes a strong emotional response in most Israelis. In recent years, many Israelis have visited Turkey and have found that it is a warm, friendly destination with a great deal of pampering at low cost. However, the positive public sentiment about Turkey that existed in Israel from the 1990s through the mid-2000s has been mixed, with deep mistrust of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 TURKISH FLAGS are seen on the facade of the restored Great Synagogue before a reopening ceremony in Edirne, western Turkey, in 2015.  (credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS) TURKISH FLAGS are seen on the facade of the restored Great Synagogue before a reopening ceremony in Edirne, western Turkey, in 2015. (credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

As such, even a significant number of Israelis find in Turkey a kind of enemy, a Muslim state with a clear affinity for political Islam, the Palestinian struggle and an unsafe state for Israelis (re: The incarceration of Mordi and Natali Oknin for spying). A significant part of the Israeli public sees Turkey as a kind of reflection of Erdogan.

Erdogan is perceived as not having a fair stance towards Israel, unreservedly supporting the Palestinian position, including Hamas and terrorism, and as constantly interfering with the issue of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and Jerusalem. On the other hand, contrary to Erdogan’s one-dimensional view, Israel is also seen as a potential partner in terms of trade and energy, recognizing its ability to help his relations in Washington, as well as Israel’s role as an important regional player in the Middle East.

Secondly, the recent relationship between the leaders of Israel and Turkey expressed the collective dimension of social feelings, and both leaders made extensive use of their feelings of distrust to accumulate political capital. The strained ties between former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan were caused by mutual attacks in the media, rhetoric of anger, mutual accusations and an expressed distrust that was primarily perceived as emotional and collective. For example, we remember the exchange between Netanyahu and Erdogan after Rotem Sela’s post erupted, in which Netanyahu called Erdogan a “dictator” and Erdogan claimed that “Netanyahu is a child killer.”

Using certain words and harsh rhetoric, Netanyahu and Erdogan both leveraged negative emotions to mobilize widespread public support for their political agenda.

Thirdly, emotions also play a part in a positive context, such as sympathy and trust, as seen in the contemporary example of the cautious rapprochement between Israel and the Turkish government. In recent months, a positive momentum has been built between Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Erdogan have been demonstrating feelings of trust. This trust is more rational than emotional.

The rational trust approach focuses on cognitive explanations for trust and cooperation. Facts or actions that can be proven that can increase enthusiasm and commitment, for example. Unlike factual trust, emotional trust is built on a connection between one person and another that cannot be quantified or proven.

Furthermore, Herzog and Erdogan recognize that building trust is the best way to achieve policy goals. First of all, their relationship is characterized by their ability to ignore the negative emotional mistrust that has grown between the two countries in recent years. An emotion that expressed almost complete mutual distrust.

The key to this success has been that Herzog is not affiliated with the executive branch nor is he responsible for Israel’s foreign relations. In addition to Herzog’s political and international experience, his background as a liberal Zionist reinforces a sense of rational and cognitive trust with Erdogan, who sees him as a balanced and experienced figure. As a result, this background helps bridge the gap with the previous leadership and provide an alternative that achieves goals that are considered rational.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the positive feelings between the presidents serve a political cause, and not the other way around. They seek to meet to advance only political and rational goals, not to drink Turkish coffee together. Both countries have clear interests they wish to advance. The Turks and Erdogan are interested in improving ties with Israel, as well as strengthening their position and role in the Eastern Mediterranean, while Israel, among other things, wants to reduce Erdogan’s support for Hamas and give more weight to its regional battle against Iran’s ambitions in the region.

Nevertheless, President Herzog’s forthcoming visit to Turkey is another opportunity to find out how the theater of emotions can contribute to the achievement of those rational goals. As such, Herzog’s invitation to visit Turkey is already a political achievement that relies, among other things, on the use of the conjugal trust between the presidents and their ability to communicate measured positive feelings about the visit to their respective citizens. To understand the events during the meeting, as well as accomplish the political objectives, it is important to note how to build relational trust in the use of words, gestures, body language, historical contexts and in the tone of voice.

In order for Herzog’s diplomatic dance to succeed, he needs to incorporate the public’s feelings towards Turkey. As a first step, Herzog’s mission should be focused on building rational trust and demonstrating readiness for rapprochement, along with clarifying that Israel is not giving up on its important interests. As an example, Herzog should shake Erdogan’s hand in a formal manner with a restrained smile, but not too warmly. An official handshake will show Herzog is also considerate of the collective feelings and skepticism of Israelis, and will demonstrate rational trust among the two leaders.

In addition to physical gestures and rituals, the choice of words has emotional significance, as well. In the conversation between Herzog and Erdogan, it is certainly worthwhile to use a positive historical reference that evokes rational and nostalgic feelings of trust regarding the normalization of Israeli-Turkish relations in 1992, in which the father of the current Israeli president played an important role. Then-president Chaim Herzog received a diplomatic visit to Turkey in 1992, beginning the Turkish-Israeli affair known as the golden age of relations between the two countries. Officially, the visit took place on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, which led many Spanish Jews to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire.

Observing and analyzing Erdogan and Herzog’s meeting, their joint and individual statements, interviews, tweets and other social media will provide a fruitful analysis of the restoration of collective trust between Israel and Turkey.

The writer is a lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at University of Groningen, and a Minerva Fellow and associate researcher at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). He is a historian of international relations, and an expert on Israel-Turkey relations and the Cold War in the Middle East.