Unfreezing the Relations: Turkey and Israel

March 11, 2022
by Enes Esen, published on 11 March 2022

With Israel and Turkey starting a new détente, the visit of Israeli President Herzog to Turkey on March 9 can mark a significant change in Turkish-Israeli relations. The political leadership of Israel and Turkey did not see eye to eye with each other since 2010, and it is hard to disregard the mistrust issue that has affected the bilateral relations. Herzog’s trip was essentially a gesture of goodwill for maintaining stability and partnership at a time when the international order is being shaken. In this context, Erdoğan and Herzog discussed bilateral relations, recent developments in Ukraine and the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Both Turkey and Israel have been recently making diplomatic overtures in the Middle East. Herzog’s visit to Turkey and Erdoğan’s welcome fit in this pattern. It should be noted that Turkey’s and Israel’s motivations for establishing ties are separate: while Israel is looking for political recognition and potential allies against Iran, Turkey is reaching out to others for economic reasons in face of a financial crisis and rampant inflation at home. In this vein, Israel established diplomatic relations with Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan, and Morocco in the last couple of years. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently paid a visit to Bahrain and the UAE. Herzog traveled to the UAE in February in order to explore possible areas of cooperation, especially in security. Similarly, Erdoğan is also endeavoring to restore ties with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt that were once his bitter enemies. Erdoğan traveled to the UAE in February to further develop the relations and attract investment from the Gulf. He also expressed his wish to visit Saudi Arabia in February, but it seems that the Saudis are dragging their feet in setting a visit date. The Turkish media rumored that Erdoğan might still visit Saudi Arabia in April during the Ramadan period.

Different motivations of the two countries were evident at the joint press conference after the meeting in Ankara. "I told Mr. Herzog that we are ready for cooperation in energy and energy security. Turkey has the experience to implement such projects," Erdogan said. He also emphasized that the Turkish ministers of foreign affairs and energy will pay a visit to Israel in the upcoming months. On the other hand, the Israeli president said that "partnership and good neighborly relations between Israel and Turkey are important to us all in the Eastern Mediterranean region.” And he added that “we shall aspire to solve our disagreements with mutual respect and goodwill, by means of the proper mechanisms and institutions which we shall develop together."

As noted in Erdoğan’s statement, it seems that his priority in this visit was the exploitation of natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. The visit came after the US announced in January that it no longer supports the EastMed natural gas pipeline connecting Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy. The US claimed that it is shifting its focus to electricity interconnectors that can support both gas and renewable energy sources.  Turkey, which was excluded from the regional initiatives to exploit natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, wants to seize the moment and replace the EastMed pipeline with another project that would directly connect the Israeli gas to Turkey. The recent developments in Ukraine and the willingness of the EU to reduce its dependency on Russian gas can indeed give momentum to this project according to Erdoğan. The problems with the gas pipelines are that they are costly to build, and it takes them years to turn into profit. In other words, one needs long-term reliable partners that can provide security and political stability for the smooth operation of the pipeline. Given Turkey’s tumultuous relationship with Israel in the last decade and the unresolved status of its maritime claims in Cyprus, it is not likely that a new pipeline would be viable in the region in the foreseeable future. In any case, Herzog felt the need to visit both Greece and Cyprus ahead of his visit to Turkey and reassured that a potential rapprochement with Turkey would not negatively affect them. 

As expected, Erdoğan also raised the Palestinian issue with Herzog and reiterated Turkey’s position of the existence of two states living side by side, i.e., Israel and Palestine, as well as the preservation of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Erdoğan’s messages on Palestine were essentially targeting his hard-core domestic constituents who are always suspicious of Israel and meant to reassure that he continues to care about the Palestinian cause. Indeed, the Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party from the opposition which shares the same political Islamist roots as the AKP, criticized Herzog’s visit by reminding Erdoğan’s old statements on Israel. 

Although the Israeli president’s post is largely ceremonial, Herzog’s visit to Turkey was important in terms of the beginning of a new rapprochement. Other steps such as the appointment of ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv will probably follow this visit in the near term. Yet, we need to wait for more concrete steps to confirm if this visit constitutes a turning point between Turkey and Israel. In the wider perspective, Erdoğan also attaches importance to Israel in terms of its special relationship with the US. He considers that any rapprochement with Israel would also lead to better relations with the incumbent US government. For instance, Turkey expects that the obstacles that it faces in the US over the modernization of its F-16 fleet can be overcome thanks to a rapprochement with Israel. Thus, Herzog’s visit can pave the way for Erdoğan to gain some favor with Biden as well.

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