Turkey-Israel: Untold Partnership

MIDDLE EAST

Serdar Dinçel

Historically, Turkey’s relations with Israel have been a bone of contention among different players in Turkish domestic politics. Albeit Israel has been less assailable to domestic criticism for its intimate relations with Turkey, and she retains a greater appetite to amplify bilateral ties, Turkey also aspires to solidify the relations with its non-Arab partner. In that vein, the background of the bilateral relations is noteworthy.

Turkey is the first Muslim majority country recognized Israel on 28th March 1949. Its relationship with Israel has been noteworthy despite its  ebbs and flows. Overall, however, the relationship had been on the rise from the late 1950s until 2009. This paper ascertains several fault lines and attests to how the countries could take the edge off the thorniest issues that hang over bilateral relations.

“Periphery Doctrine” as it is largely known, has been the cornerstone of Israel’s Grand Strategy. In the course of the cold war, that heralded amplification of Israel’s links with Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. It had fundamentally been tailored to boost cooperation with non-Arab neighbors of Israel’s Arab neighbors Israel was at war with. In a way, it had catered to surpass the sense of containment by its Arab nemeses. Turkey was an invaluable ally for Israel as it had presented Israel on a golden platter a chance to round up information as per its Arab adversaries Turkey shares borders with; namely Iraq and Syria.

In 1958, with the advent of the United Arab Republic consisting of Egypt and Syria, Israel and Turkey had accelerated their alliance efforts. Eventually, they succeed in crowning these efforts with a Phantom Pact.

That pact has formed the backbone of their relations during the whole 20th century. As such, Turkey had maintained its pro-Western stance, and buttressed it via an alliance with a rather Western-oriented country in the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, Turkey’s moves aroused the suspicion of its Middle Eastern neighbors. At this juncture, Syria became a key corollary in trumpeted relations between Turkey and Israel.

Driven by its hankering to enlarge its trade and raise the country’s revenue from foreign trade, Turkey’s strand had slightly tipped towards Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Public sympathy towards Arabs, political interests, and desire to elicit Arab support in the Cyprus issue have all made an evident contribution to this recalibration. However, Turkish-Israeli relations have not incurred severe impairment and stood the test of time even though it had generally gained momentum from behind the scenes. Turkish policymakers’ rhetoric, unlike the early 2010s, was restraint in terms of reproval of actions pursued by Israel against the plight of Palestinians. That Turkey’s attitude was well-balanced against Israel primarily derived from its consciousness that the best path to mitigate the plight of Palestinians was a more mellow approach with Israel.

During the 1970s, while Israel had been wrestling against PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), Kurdish insurgents sowed the seeds for stagnated security problem Turkey found itself facing. The PLO had been training PKK insurgents in Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. PKK terrorism was accompanied by a rising ASALA terrorism which had had more than 30 Turkish Diplomats assassinated during 1974-1984. Israel’s occupation undermined PLO’s space for a maneuver. Israel had also played a stimulant role in Turkey’s fight against ASALA. The occupation in Lebanon had delivered many incentives for Turkey to crush the ASALA.

By the same token, Israel became a cushion for Turkey in the latter’s steadfast and arduous fight against the PKK in the 1990s. Throughout this period, feud with Syria over the water issue and terrorism became interwoven issues. At this juncture, Israel’s underpinning value emerged from its critical support for Turkey against the PKK in terms of intelligence, and procurement of arms and ammunition. It is worth noting that Turkey had given its weight to a crushing war against the PKK. Policies espoused by Turkish Policymakers were security-oriented. Alliance with Israel was an indispensable node of that security orientation.

Despite vociferous demurs from moderate Islamist parties that held sway over Turkish Politics, Turkey had nonetheless built an unwavering military-security partnership with Israel. In that vein, the military commanders were said to play a critical role in the embodiment of this alliance.

However, the contribution of one external actor to this strategic alliance was telling: Syria. Syria had deep-seated wrangles with Turkey including Hatay, the water crisis, and its salient support to the PKK (in terms of permission to shelter on Syrian soil and conduct its training in Syrian-occupied Beqaa Valley in Lebanon). To further cement ties, Syria has had lingering relations with Hezbollah with which it aspired to keep Israel at bay. The protracted nature of the Syrian-Israeli feud over Golan Heights inflamed Israel’s security concerns. Given a visible appetite in the Turkish Army to acquire modern arms to choke off the PKK, they have consummated their relationship in 1996 with a strategic alliance. This consummation is tantamount to a milestone in bilateral relations. Therefore, the relations that remained in the background and did not elicit explicit attention have gained momentum and turned into a consolidated, full-fledged strategic alliance. However, it should be highlighted that Turkey policymakers never have explicitly declared that they were official allies with Israel in a bid not to convolute relations with a large swathe of the public that harbored a great sympathy towards Palestinians. The case in point was allegedly captured in Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion’s words:” Being in a relationship but refraining from publicly acknowledging it.” However, that did not lead to a disruption of relations. Israel and Turkey had had stealthily been on the board in terms of their mutual angsts.

Over and above that, they had cultivated extensive commercial ties and even concluded a free-trade agreement during the same era. Overall, Turkey’s relations with Israel in early 2000s can be epitomized as a double-edge sword. To put more bluntly, advent to the power of moderate Islamist government in Turkey had initially substantiated concerns in the West regarding relations with Israel. In fact, Turkey was very half-hearted in its efforts to explicitly underline partnership with Israel.

However, JDP’s concerted endeavors to effectuate a new sort of Muslim country on the lines Western democracies necessitated it to raise the bilateral relations with Israel to New heights. Numerous visits by high-ranking Turkish officials to Iran and Arab capitals notwithstanding, neither then-Prime Minister Erdoğan nor Foreign Minister Gül had paid a visit to Israel. Having said this, their ties were evolved from being based on a mere military-strategic solidarity to encompassing all realms of civilian affairs, most noticeably economic domain. They had already built a free trade zone in 2000.

Even as Turkey’s unsaid partnership with Israel predates their partnership agreement in 1996, February 1996 partnership agreement was exclusive in the sense that it was declared avowedly. Therefore, Turkey was free from Arab spell. Instead of giving rise to estrangement of Turkey from Arab fold, it endowed Turkey with inestimable dividends. Durability of deterrence in Turkish-Israeli alliance had been viewed as hatched against Iran and most notably Syria. It also moved Egypt to seek curry favor with Turkey. It has supplemented Turkey’s military preponderance against Syria. Moreover, Syria, being left adrift by non-formation of counter alliance, acceded Turkey’s demand to oust Öcalan, leader of the outlawed PKK, from Syrian territory. This move was eventuated in Adana Protocol according to the provisions of which Syria had to refrain from supporting PKK and providing it a shelter. Given that Palestinian-Israeli relations were also buoyed, Turkey seized a chance to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, and became a venue for deliberations.

Hence, Turkey bridged differences between Israel and Islamic World. It even acted as a conduit in negotiations between Israel and Pakistan in 2005. All those developments gives a rosy tone to the bilateral relations. However, the relations suffered major setback at outset of 2008. Turkey then was facilitating normalization talks between Israel and Syria. However, that Israel did not bother to tip off Turkey has enraged Ankara. Erdoğan berated then-Israeli President Shimon Peres for knowing how to kill people. This instant is posited to be a watershed moment. That stern response not just unveiled Prime Minister Erdoğan’s disgruntlement of Israel’s recalcitrant behavior, but also underscored his aptness to utilize the Palestinian cause to ignite domestic and regional support for his policy choices. Altercations were deepened with the Mavi Marmara incident wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Turkish activists designing to alleviate the blockade on Gaza. From that point on, relations were never be able reinstated to what they used to be. These move have broad-scale repercussions for both sides of the coin.

Thanks to Obama’s unabated pressure to bear on Israel, hopes were rekindled for the resurrection of once unswerving alliance. In 2013, he convinced Netanyahu to make a phone call to Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan. It has also acclimatized the atonement for families of dead activists. Even though rows were briefly subsided, mutual distrust hung over. For 3 straight years ensuing the iconic phone call, there was no palpable stir towards consolidation of the relations. The tide began turn, however, as they exchanged ambassadors in 2016. Albeit revival of the relations, Israel’s blatant response to Palestinians in 2018 dashed hopes for further rapprochement.

In all those lines, it seems as though Ankara appears to abandon its policy in 1990s and early 2000s that was tailored to reconcile between sympathy towards Palestinians and prevalent Islamic emotions on the one hand, and maintaining its relations with Israel on the other. Staple node of Turkish Foreign Policy was that Turkey had come to comprehension that it can do best to woo Israel to solicit legitimate rights of Palestinian people. This strategy has been more fungible in getting Israel come to terms with duly respect of Palestinians than ostracizing Israel has ever been. Peremptory approach just unduly draws Israel’s wrath.

By the same token, massive censure against Israel prods her to outstretched arms of Greece and Greek Cypriots. Although Israel has ceaselessly retained lukewarm relations with Greece following latter’s full establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1991, Israel had noticeably tilted towards Turkey in her fallout with Greece over an array of issues. Proposal of bilateral partnership between Greece and Israel in 1994 notwithstanding, the idea was fizzled out. Israel avowedly underscored its prioritization of more robust ties with Ankara. That this gesture accrued Turkey’s room for maneuver in Mediterranean cannot be overstated at a time regional countries have been jockeying for high stakes at energy resources in the region.

Moving back to today, a hodgepodge of different political parties in Israel has managed to unseat Netanyahu. Given Netanyahu’s tarnished track record with Turkey, this move was expected to drive Turkey and Israel towards further reconciliation. In fact, Turkish President Erdoğan gave his counterpart, Isaac Herzog, congratulations call during which both leaders had gone through a comprehensive scrutiny of bilateral relations. However, these gestures have failed to bring about the momentum desired to bury the hatchet. From my standpoint of view, there seems to be no single and clear-cut response to throw light on why their rapprochement process lags behind. Rather, I will try to attest this apathy with a flurry of various motives that bar an expeditious normalization.

First of all, Israel’s hand vis-a-vis Turkey became stronger. In the aftermath of the steep downturn of relations in 2009, Israel has gradually built a web of new friends Turkey was at odds with. That list entails chiefly Greece and Greek Cypriots but also Arab countries that championed a tougher stance against Turkey, such as UAE and Bahrain. Efforts to defuse tensions notwithstanding, Greece scrupulously endeavors to preclude a normalization between Turkey and Israel from behind the scenes. Israel might indeed have been leveraging its ties with those countries as bargaining chips in negotiations with Turkey to come to the rapprochement on its terms. This loophole renders Turkey assailable against the formation of rival alliances.

Subsequently, the flare-up of conflict in Gaza in early May had also dashed hopes for a rapid breakthrough in relations. The two sides had on and off dropped some hints that a breakthrough was on sight. However, the grim response by Israel met with a stern attitude from Turkey. These escalations triggered debates about the Turkish President being anti-semitic, a stigma unequivocally denied by the Turkish President and other officials. This unpleasant landscape attests that they walk on a tightrope and the resilience of their relationship were receptive to other regional dynamics that surpass the boundaries of mere bilateral relations. Israel hitherto reproaches Turkey’s lukewarm approach to Hamas, designated by Israel an unambiguous terrorist organization. On the other end of the coin, Israel’s lingering blockade on Gaza clashes with what Turkey views as a grotesque humanitarian crisis.

Thirdly, Israel might have had other extrapolations vis-a-vis Turkey. As has been known, Turkey has been undergoing an economic fallout and political debates the Presidential system unleashed. The amalgamation of those muddles raises the spectrum of regime change. Thus, an anticipated regime change in Turkey might move Israel to lurk and await for a more favorable chance to revive the alliance.

However, in this paper, I will opine that the relations need be got back on track as soon as possible. I will underpin my notions with reified illustrations.

Foremost, militarily speaking, they constitute the two mightiest armies in the region. In line with this might, they were confronted by numerous conventional and unconventional challenges. Iran and its proxies have the lion’s share in these threats. Iran’s reinforcement in Syria brings fissures with Israel and Turkey into the spotlight. Just days ago, the Iranian ambassador to Damascus affirmed his alacrity for the withdrawal of all Turkish troops from Syria. Iran’s well-known attempts to entrench itself in southern Syria in a way that will enable it to keep Israel at check also enrage Israel. Hence, a prospective normalization might bring about a credible deterrence power that would keep Iran at bay. Plus, the two countries also share similar worldviews regarding Caucasian and Central Asia. Iran’s intractable support to Armenia and its scheming efforts to roll back Turkish influence in the region aggravate the security concerns of Turkey. Turkey and Israel have already demonstrated the latent potential of their concerted solidarity in the second Nagorno-Karabakh War last year. In the absence of such solidarity, the Iran-Russia-Armenia triangle reaps on the benefits of the vacuum left by other actors. Israel’s top-notch intelligence amenities and Turkey’s state of art drone capabilities combined might engender higher security for their people. The apathy of leaders in Turkey and Israel frees potential rivals’ hands to defy their regional position. Akin to the 1990s when the Syrian factor played a crucial role in the embodiment of their alliance, that time apprehensions that pertain to common threats originating from terrorist organizations and states-such as Iran- might form the cornerstone of the revival of the alliance.

What is more, newly discovered energy resources unearth raging competition among regional stakeholders. Albeit decision by bloc composed of Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Greek Cypriots to move ahead with plans to carry gas through Greek Cypriots to Europe, avoiding Turkey; Israel is mindful of Turkey’s paramount geostrategic significance. An oil pipeline route that passes through Turkey is the most palatable way to reify this project. As early as March this year, that realization led Israel’s former Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz, to explicitly divulge that the two sides had been in touch as per energy resources in the region. His conciliatory rhetoric was hailed by Ankara, and paved the way for his invitation to the Antalya Diplomacy forum held in June. Although his invitation was later withdrawn due to stoking clashes between Israel and the Palestinians in May, it was a sound indication that current ruptures as per energy require genuine cooperation.

Another pressing need to iron out their differences lies in Turkey’s relations with the wider Western world. At a time when Turkey’s ruptures with the West came into sight, Turkey might want to tighten its relations with Israel to mitigate the adverse implications of those fallouts. On top of that, closer cooperation with Israel historically dilated Turkey’s room for maneuver in the Mediterranean. Unlike the trajectory of novel developments that moved Israel to approach Greece, Israel has long prioritized Turkey over Greece. However, that is a two-way street. Israel’s show of force in terms of alliances notwithstanding, beneath the surface lies its calcified sense of insecurity. It is clear as day that only through the alliance with Turkey, can Israel’s national security be duly augmented. Therefore, the importance of close coordination along the lines of the 1996 strategic pact cannot be overstated.

In a nutshell, this paper substantiates that stronger cooperation between Turkey and Israel offers a more encouraging picture for regional stability and security. The Turkish President has made a rare call to Israeli President Isaac Herzog in July. The move had been construed as a bid to revitalize the relations. Since then, no breakthrough has come to the surface. It seems as though both sides have been dragging out their feet in the rapprochement process. However, Turkey has been facing mounting encroachments of terrorist organizations in areas under its control in Syria. Israel’s fear regarding Iranian activities likewise seems to be exacerbated. The most efficient way to cease or curb these activities could be the wholehearted approach to step up the normalization process. That way, Turkey might have the upper hand for nudging Israel into paying attention to the duly rights of the Palestinians. Therefore, the notion of this paper has hinged on the view that coalescence of those factors would generate yielding results for regional security and stability.

Lingering suspicions, however, evidence that it will take a bit more time to obtain a greater leap.

References

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Bengio, O. (2004). The Turkish–Israeli  Relationship Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders. New York:Palgrave Macmillan.

Ülgül, M. (2019). The Decline of the ‘Syrian Effect’ in Turkish-Israeli Relations. Uluslararası İlişkiler Akademik Dergi.

Günay, D. (2017). The Roles Turkey Played in the Middle East.