Turkey and Israel are two influential countries in West Asia. Differences in the Palestine and Kurdish Questions, relations to Israel and conflicting positions in the Eastern Mediterranean have caused several major high-level crises between the two countries and led to restraint as well as downgrading in diplomatic relations. Notwithstanding this past, a revitalization and normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations is widely discussed in the international press. As UWI, we open the debate on whether normalization is possible; on what conditions it depends and to what consequences it might lead.
The opinions expressed in the debate do not necessarily represent the opinion of the UWI Editorial Board.
Interview by Mustafa Göker
Rapprochment in relations between Turkey and Israel is widely discussed in international press. Top officials from both countries made statements that seemed to signal potential improvements in relations. Mesut Casin, a foreign relations adviser to the Turkish President, openly declared Turkey’s willingness to restore full diplomatic relations if Israel makes reciprocal gestures. On the other hand, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told CNBC that if Turkey reorients toward regional cooperation with its neighbours and wants to join the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, Israel would react positively.
Once close allies, Turkey and Israel have both expelled each other’s ambassadors several times in the last decade amid escalating tensions. Now, however, they seem to be getting their relations back on track.
We discussed the situation with Mr. Yonatan Touval, a senior policy analyst with Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
What do you think about the current course of Turkey-Israel relations? Are they poised to improve?
Inter-ministerial team formed in Israel to evaluate progress of rapprochment
Yonatan Touval: Turkey-Israel relations are at a curious juncture. For the first time in years, President Erdoğan appears keen to thaw relations and is being met with a cool – or at least lukewarm – shoulder. Historically, the dynamic has been the opposite, but now it is Turkey that is the more interested party. There are multiple reasons for Israel’s lukewarm stance, including resentment over the entente with Turkey in 2016 (which was made possible following significant concessions by Israel but lasted less than two years), deepening strategic ties with Greece and Cyprus, and the onset of the normalization process with the Arab world. Israel’s deepening alliances with Greece and Cyprus, on one front, and the UAE and Bahrain, on the other, has granted Israel the kind of strategic depth it used to seek in its relationship with Turkey.
There are huge considerations for Israel, and no progress until after a new government is formed following the general elections in late March. That said, following Erdoğan’s recent statements about closer ties with Israel, outgoing Foreign Minister Gabi Ashekanzi formed an inter-ministerial team to evaluate the potential for progress.
Do you think the Turkish-Israeli delegations are meeting behind closed doors, and if so, what are the potential topics being discussed in these meetings?
Of course. There are meetings taking place at different levels all the time. After all, the embassies are working, despite the absence of ambassadors. According to media reports, there have even been meetings between high-level intelligence representatives. These meetings have various objectives, both bilateral and regional. At the bilateral level, recent meetings have focused on evaluating the prospects of improving relations. In my understanding, there are not any real obstacles to improving relations, in contrast to 2016 when Turkey had a set of firm demands for Israel. In fact, the parties don’t require much from each other for them to renew the exchange of ambassadors.
On the regional level, meetings are likely to be focusing on a wide range of shared regional strategic interests, such as, for instance, the situation in Syria and energy and gas development in the eastern Mediterranean.
Do you think Israel might be pushing the Hamas issue as a precondition for the improvement of relations?
The presence and activities of Hamas, especially that of Hamas’s military wing, in Turkey have been of continued concern for Israel. It is one thing to host Hamas’s political wing, which Turkey has done for years and which Israel tolerated and even learned to appreciate, but the military wing is a different matter. Indeed, if media reports that Turkey is allowing it to use its base in Istanbul to develop its military capabilities against Israel, including cyberwarfare, are true (we should note that Ankara has denied those reports), then Israel is going to continue insisting on this issue, as it did back in 2016. Indeed, from the Israeli perspective, this is an issue that Turkey has failed to address satisfactorily within the context of the 2016 rapprochement.
Given that Israel has begrudgingly accepted Turkey’s failure to address the issue even after the 2016 rapprochement, it’s fair to say that it’s unlikely to be a precondition for improving ties right now. That said, I have no doubt that ties would improve if Turkey was less hospitable to Hamas.
What about Israel’s support for armed Kurdish fractions?
Israeli government urges Turkey to end support to Hamas for the normalization of relations. Do you think Israel would cut its support for armed Kurdish factions operating in northern Syria and northern Iraq in return?
I am not aware that Israel is arming the Kurds in northern Syria. I know that there is this lingering suspicion but the fact of the matter is that Israel has no real interest in doing so.
As for the Kurds in northern Iraq, Israel’s relations are with the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), with which Ankara too has good relations, certainly not with the PKK, which Israel considers a terror organization.
I don’t think that Israel’s demand that Turkey end its support to Hamas should be linked to these issues. They deserve a separate and in-depth discussion.
What is the general view regarding a possible Turkey-Israel rapprochement among the Israeli public? Do you think such a development would receive public support?
The Israeli public has always been favorable to closer relations with Turkey. Culturally speaking, there is a real sense of solidarity and kinship with Turkey, as demonstrated most clearly in the number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey (unfortunately, less so the other way around). These sentiments indicate that there is strong public support for better political relations. According to a recent public opinion poll conducted by Mitvim, a solid majority of Israelis, 56%, said they favored closer relations with Turkey, against only 32% who said they did not. These are particularly good numbers given the acrid political atmosphere, and attest to the overridingly positive feelings Israelis have for Turkey.
Given that the major stumbling blocks for closer relations are at the leadership levels, my colleague Nimrod Goren has argued that Israelis and Turks “should not let the fate of their countries’ relations be dependent only on their leaders’ will” and work to cultivate relations at non-official levels.
“Israeli – Arab normalization doesn’t target Turkey – at least not from the Israeli side”
The normalization process that Israel has developed with several Arab countries is said to be an effort at curbing Iran’s influence in the region. Could we think of Turkey as another potential target of the unofficial Arab-Israeli alliance?
Absolutely not. For Israel, the recent normalization process with Arab countries holds multiple advantages, and among the main motivations for developing closer relations with the two Arab Gulf countries (the UAE and Bahrain) is the shared threat from Iran. Turkey is not a target, at least not for Israel. In fact, Israel only stands to benefit from improved relations between its new allies in the Arabian Gulf and Turkey and might even be in a unique position to facilitate channels of dialogue. That said, I don’t rule out the possibility that curbing Turkish influence was one of the considerations for the UAE when it decided to embrace Israel.
Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev is supposedly the mediator between Turkey and Israel. Turkish authorities denied these allegations. What are your views on this topic? Also, what is Israel’s overall approach to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict on Nagorno-Karabakh?
“I doubt Baku can replace Washington in mediation efforts”
In principle, Israel should welcome any initiative to mediate between it and Turkey, but I doubt that Baku can replace Washington here. However, even if the Azeris could help Israel on the Turkish front, they risk only further complicating matters on the Israeli-Armenian front, which is the one that currently needs the greatest support. Indeed, when it comes to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Israel’s military assistance to Azerbaijan has been one of unadulterated realpolitik. Its geostrategic interests in the alliance with Azerbaijan notwithstanding, Israel should seek to balance them with moral considerations toward the Armenians. I realize that such an approach by Israel might add to friction with Turkey. Given the threat from Iran, on the one hand, and the interest of improving relations with Turkey on the other hand, I don’t know how far Israel can afford to reach out to Armenia. For a start, however, rather than welcoming Azeri mediation with Turkey, Israel might offer itself as a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia