Israel and Turkey: A Closer Look

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently hosted the leaders of Greece and Cyprus. According to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the leaders discussed important ‘regional strategic issues’ including a plan ‘to lay a gas pipeline from Israel to Europe’ and additional cooperation projects between the three countries. This was the fifth summit between the leaders in less than three years, and new developments included signing several trilateral and bilateral agreements involving cooperation on cyber security, exchange of information, cooperation on satellites and other issues, as well as the creation of a secretariat that “oversees ties” between the three countries and monitors “the implementation of trilateral projects”. As gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea forms this natural alliance between Israel, Greece and Cyprus. One key Mediterranean country is left out of the equation—Turkey. What is the message these states want to send to Turkey?

For decades since the creation of Israel in 1948, Ankara enjoyed a close relationship with Israel, while historically Turkey has had troubled relations with both Greece and Cyprus; however, hostilities have cast a shadow on the relationship between the two countries for the last decade. Repeated ‘downgrading and detente’ has been the name of the game, with the Rand Corporation describing Ankara’s ties with Israel as having faced major ‘ups and downs’. After President Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Ankara expelled Israel’s ambassador to Turkey and recalled its envoy in Israel in an attempt to express its disagreement with Washington’s decision. In addition, Erdogan chaired an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference leaders in Ankara to condemn the US decision. A war of words between President Erdogan and Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to shape their relations, and the two countries do not see eye to eye on major regional issues, as follows:

First, the new balance of power in the Middle East plays a role in the deterioration of relations between Israel and Turkey, while it also provides an opportunity for a detente between the two regional powers. The Middle East is steadily experiencing a new geopolitical shift that is changing the nature of regional alliances and security interests in the region. As the United States’ role in the region seems unpredictable, a new balance of power is developing within the region between major regional powers (Israel, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia) as well as the small Arab sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf region (Qatar, UAE, Oman, etc.), with Iran emerging as a regional hegemon that is capable of projecting power from Sanaa to Beirut.  There are some common interests, but the name of the game is instability. While Ankara used to distance itself from the Middle East during the Cold War, the rise of the ‘Strategic Depth’ and ‘Zero Problems with Neighbours’ doctrines under Erdogan and his chief foreign policy architect, Ahmet Davutoglu, have generated a more active Turkish engagement across the region due to its security, energy, and trade interests, combined with the quest for regional influence. This quest for regional influence has changed the nature of Turkey’s foreign policy from ‘zero problems with neighbours’ to ‘problems with all neighbours’, including Israel. This new balance of power has soured Ankara’s relationship with Israel, causing the two sides to diverge on several key issues in the Middle East. For instance, the war in Syria and the counter ISIL campaign in Iraq and Syria have created a new atmosphere in which the Kurds can operate alongside major powers (primarily the US) to successfully defeat ISIL by capturing its former capital Raqqa. The Kurds in Iraq, through their autonomous regional administration (Kurdistan Regional Government), successfully conducted an independence referendum where all regional powers except Israel rejected the result. Israel supported the referendum in order to gain strategic leverage vis-a-vis Turkey and Iran, as Ari Heistein has argued. Erbil borders both Iran and Turkey, so that if Israel has an ally that borders with its rivals in the region, this would bolster its security and act as a counterbalance against both Ankara and Tehran.

The extent that Iran poses a security challenge to Israel and Turkey is another area where both sides currently do not share a common objective, although in the long-term this could be a potential area for cooperation. Israel considers Tehran a primary security threat due to Iran’s support of Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas; in contrast, Ankara views Iran with a more pragmatic eye, despite its own long-term concerns regarding Tehran’s projection of power across the Middle East. As the United States is ramping up economic pressure against Iran through sanctions, Tehran needs to reduce the economic pressure by engaging closely with Turkey. Ankara previously helped Iran to minimize the negative consequences of the United States sanctions, but doing so now would further complicate Israel’s ties with Turkey in the short-term.

Second, Turkey’s close relations with Hamas, coupled with the lack of a peace dialog between Israel and Palestine, pose a threat to relations between Turkey and Israel. From Ankara’s point of view, Hamas is not a terrorist group, even though the United States, the European Union and Israel have classified the militant organization as such. However, it is important to note that Turkey’s relations with Hamas are purely an emotional and ideological partnership, instead of an alliance based on Ankara’s geopolitical necessities, as Dr. Dina Lisnyansky from the Dep. of Middle Eastern Studies at Ariel University has informed the author. A study from the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) based in Tel Aviv noted that since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, which sparked a major crisis in the Israel-Turkey relations, Ankara has cemented its partnership with Hamas by hosting dozens of members of the leadership of the militant group for high-level meetings, including a meeting with President Erdogan.

As long as this ideological partnership continues, it will be a thorny issue that hinders any prospects for a long-term, strategic partnership between Israel and Turkey. Besides the ideological closeness between Turkey’s AKP and Hamas, another issue that also relates to ideology is Erdogan’s domestic considerations, as he aims to project an image of a ‘tough guy’ by using strong rhetoric to offend Israel in order to gain popular support in Turkey. Abdullah Bozkurt, a former journalist and the author of the book ‘Turkey Interrupted:  Derailing Democracy’, has argued that as soon as relations between Turkey and Israel are mended, ‘the actions of Israel in Palestine or Erdogan’s poisonous narrative toward Israel plays a negative factor in preventing a full rapprochement in their bilateral relations’. Considering Bozkurt’s argument that ideology drives Turkey’s foreign policy under Erdogan, it is going to be difficult to achieve a detente between Israel and Turkey in the long term.

Third, the geopolitical transformation of the Eastern Mediterranean and the formation of new alliances has driven a wedge between Israel and Turkey. Although the discovery of large natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea, which could transform Israel into an energy exporter, has led to the formation of a close partnership with Greece and Cyprus, Gallia Lindastrauss from the Institute of National Security Studies told the author that a ‘shared concern regarding Ankara’s assertiveness in the region’ is also driving the tripartite partnership. However, as historic grievances continue to shape Ankara’s relations with both Greece and Cyprus, it is important to emphasize that Israel is not willing to expand the tripartite partnership into a security and defence alliance, which could further strain Ankara’s relations with Israel. As Mr. Efraim Inbar from the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS) argues, “more than 90% of [Israel’s] trade passes through the Mediterranean Sea”, so security in this geostrategic maritime zone is critical to Israel’s economic wellbeing. As this gas-rich region attracts the eyes of different actors, Israel is compelled to develop its naval capabilities to deter potential threats to this critical area for Israel’s economic security.

Regarding the evolution of this tripartite relationship, the joint declarations that the three leaders formally issued proclaim that the cooperation is to be ‘’non-exclusive’’. Former Israeli ambassador to Greece, Mr. Arye Makel, has suggested that this formulation could potentially open the door for Egypt to join—as well as Turkey—in the future. Although there is already an evolving working relationship between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus in parallel to the tripartite cooperation with Israel, if the tripartite expands into a quadrilateral partnership by including Egypt, then a new problem would develop that could signal a new threat in Ankara’s strategic calculations. This, especially when considering that Egypt’s relations with Turkey have already deteriorated since the military takeover in 2013 due to Erdogan’s ideological alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The US is already boosting its cooperation with both Greece and Cyprus by launching a strategic dialog with Athens and enhancing its bilateral security cooperation with Nicosia. The presence of US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman in the trilateral meeting clearly indicates Washington’s endorsement, which is due to its commitment to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on Russia by finding new areas where the EU can diversify its energy supply. These new activities have caused concern in Ankara, which believes these activities could challenge Turkey’s presence in this strategically significant waterway. If Turkey continues in its current path, the United States’ endorsement of the tripartite cooperation and Ankara’s isolation in the Mediterranean theatre will force Erdogan to improve its ties with at least Israel and Egypt.

Beyond the challenge of the Mediterranean, the balance of power in the Middle East, and the ideological alliance between Turkey and Hamas, there are new areas of potential cooperation between Turkey and Israel in the long term. The gas discovery in the Eastern Mediterranean may serve as a potential area for strengthening economic cooperation between Israel and Turkey, if Ankara requires a new plan to diversify its energy needs. Currently, Ankara receives more than 50% of its gas from Russia; however, the current relationship between Ankara and Moscow is not stable, and Ankara may wish to diversify its energy supplies by reducing its dependence on Russia and Iran, and also may wish to position Turkey as a natural hub of the energy market. Iran’s growing influence is a long-term challenge that could potentially serve as a motivation for rapprochement between Israel and Turkey. Realpolitik instead of rhetoric and personality will shape relations between the two countries in the future.