Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Turkey and Israel: A Relationship Unlikely to be Fully Rekindled
Turkey and Israel: A Relationship Unlikely to be Fully Rekindled

Turkey and Israel: A Relationship Unlikely to be Fully Rekindled

In recent months, the phone lines between Ankara and Tel Aviv have been unusually busy. In November, following the release of an Israeli couple that had been detained while vacationing in Istanbul, Israeli President Isaac Herzog rang his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thanking the leader for his role in resolving the crisis. Shortly after, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett followed suit in what was the first official conversation between Turkish and Israeli heads of government since 2013. On January 20, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu phoned his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, wishing him well following his recovery from COVID-19. This call was similarly unprecedented as the two sides’ foreign ministers had not spoken in well over a decade. Days later, Erdoğan called Herzog for the second time since he took office in July of 2021, offering his condolences over the death of his counterpart’s mother. When news broke that Erdoğan had contracted COVID-19, it was no surprise to see Herzog among the first to call and check in on the leader.

Amidst all this chatter, the two sides have decided to move beyond the long-distance phone lines and speak in person. On March 9, Herzog will reportedly fly to Ankara to meet with Erdoğan, the first Israeli presidential visit to Turkey since 2007. A pair of senior Turkish officials have already visited Israel to lay the groundwork for the Herzog-Erdoğan meeting.

Yet, these renewed contacts and resuscitated diplomatic channels should fool no one: deep, structural limitations in the Turkish-Israeli relationship will keep a more profound rapprochement off the table for the considerable future. In the short term, domestic political considerations may preclude meaningful outreach from either side. Erdoğan would need serious concessions from Israel in order to make normalization palatable to his base while Tel Aviv has little reason to throw him a lifeline ahead of the 2023 Turkish presidential elections. In the long term, the atrophy of close institutional ties and broader loss of shared experiences and trust will hamper a return to the multifaceted cooperation of decades past. Additionally, geopolitical transformations that have taken place in the Middle East over the past decade have rendered rapprochement less urgent for Tel Aviv while also giving Erdoğan no shortage of regional relations to repair. As such, it will take much more than a new government in Ankara for a full-fledged rehabilitation of Turkish-Israeli ties. 

Turkish-Israeli Relations Through History

One reason observers are not completely discounting an improvement in relations is that Turkey and Israel have a long history of cooperation. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel, doing so in March of 1949. While initial Turkish overtures were inspired by a desire to win favor in Washington and gain support for its NATO membership, Ankara and Tel Aviv quickly realized mutual benefits from strengthening ties. On the economic front, Israel was able to access crucial agricultural commodities produced throughout Anatolia while Turkey secured vital imports of Israeli finished goods and technology, as well as valuable knowledge in agriculture and irrigation.

At the same time, Turkey and Israel sought to take advantage of each other’s significant intelligence and military capabilities. In 1958, with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic reaching both of their borders, Ankara and Tel Aviv agreed to the highly secretive Phantom Pact. Also referred to as the peripheral alliance, the agreement ushered in an era of unprecedented security cooperation. Seeking to counter Soviet expansionism, Arab nationalism, Islamism, and terrorism, Turkey and Israel engaged in high-level intelligence sharing and war planning, including biannual meetings between their respective intelligence and military chiefs.

However, this extensive cooperation proved unable to withstand external pressures, namely Turkey’s desire to win Arab support for its position on the Cyprus conflict, increasing dependence on Arab oil, interest in expanding its exports to Arab markets, and burgeoning domestic opposition to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. In 1966, Ankara downgraded relations with Israel to their lowest level, while pursuing a more pro-Palestinian foreign policy. This culminated in its recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1974 and a vote to support a UN resolution equating Zionism with racism the following year.

Nevertheless, the two countries’ history of cooperation proved instrumental in the rapid rehabilitation and expansion of relations, beginning with the formal establishment of embassies in 1991. The Phantom Pact-era had generated strong, pro-Israel sympathies within the Turkish Armed Forces, which, throughout the 1990s, enjoyed total control over policy decisions in Ankara. Turkish generals and diplomats took advantage of a transformed regional calculus—with the Arab world in disarray following the Gulf War and Tel Aviv now actively engaging with the Palestinians—to begin openly engaging with their Israeli counterparts. Seeking to gain the upper hand in its armed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Ankara quickly entered into a number of security cooperation deals with Israel that entailed transfers of military technology, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism training. These were formally codified in the 1996 Turkey-Israel Defense Agreement, which led Ankara to procure a substantial number of arms and technology upgrades from Israeli firms, spending over $2 billion during the subsequent decade. This resuscitated peripheral alliance was facilitated by the fact that both sides were eager to prove their geostrategic value to the United States in a post-Cold War Middle East. Washington, for its part, shared with Ankara and Tel Aviv a desire to curb the regional influence of hostile regimes in Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran.

Turkish-Israeli cooperation—which expanded into areas such as trade, transportation, energy, tourism, agriculture, education, construction, and science—lasted all the way until the late 2000s, when then-Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) began taking a tougher stance on Israel’s violent methods of control over the Palestinian territories. The relationship reached a breaking point in 2010, when, during a melee, Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists participating in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a group of six ships attempting to break Tel Aviv’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Following the release in 2011 of a UN report on the incident, diplomatic ties were drastically downgraded and have remained so ever since.

Out of Crisis, Opportunity?

Despite this longstanding diplomatic freeze, many analysts still believe that a rapprochement is of interest to both sides. A number of political scientists point out that the two countries share an interest in natural gas exploitation in the Eastern Mediterranean; harbor mutual concern over continuing instability across their borders in Syria; and recently came together to provide logistical, technical, and operational support to Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which even led to repeated offers by Baku to mediate their détente. Other analysts also note robust links in transportation and tourism, with Turkish Airlines the most popular foreign carrier operating in Israel. At the same time, economic cooperation has remained unaffected by the decline in bilateral relations, with trade levels skyrocketing from $3.8 billion in 2008 to $6.5 billion in 2020.  

Meanwhile, the often-overlooked cultural connections inextricably linking Turkey and Israel must also be considered. Over 75,000 Israeli citizens boast Turkish-Jewish origin and retain a deep attachment to the Anatolian lands they once called home. Israelis in general have a well-established appreciation for Turkish food, soap operas, and coastal resorts. Just across the Mediterranean there are over 15,000 Jews that still call Turkey home. Sephardic traditions, histories, and cultural contributions are increasingly reaching national prominence in the country thanks to projects such as Netflix’s “Külüp” and the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project.

Though no doubt less influential than the concerns of realpolitik, these links have always provided a solid foundation for warmer ties. Not only can they help make rapprochement more palatable to the masses, but these cultural connections are also often exploited by politicians seeking to engage in subtle diplomacy. This latter dynamic was put on full display in December when President Erdoğan met with members of Turkey’s Sephardic clergy and other regional Jewish leaders for Hanukkah. Many analysts, including Nazlan Ertan, an Izmir-based journalist who covers Turkish politics and culture for Al-Monitor and has written extensively on the country’s Sephardic community, interpreted the meeting as a signal to officials in Israel. Ertan told FPRI that “Erdoğan tries to ‘balance’ his attacks on Israel with good ties with Turkey’s Jewish community,” noting that his engagement with the group, and his repeated vows to combat anti-Semitism, are always of symbolic importance to Turkish-Israeli ties.

Election Season in Turkey

Erdoğan’s true opinion on such ties will be clarified in the coming eighteen months:  Turkey’s next presidential elections are scheduled to take place on June 18, 2023 (though they may well be pushed to an earlier date). As in other electoral democracies during election season, the foreign policy decisions of incumbent leaders become prisoner to their domestic political considerations—this is no different for Erdoğan and the AKP. This effect is even more pronounced in Turkey, where a controversial constitutional referendum in 2017 granted the office of the president vast legislative authority while effectively removing executive oversight. Since these changes came into effect a year later, Turkish foreign policy has often been subject to Erdoğan’s own impulses rather than the recommendations of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

This policymaking structure brings with it severe obstacles for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement in the short term. With the AKP’s approval ratings at an all-time low and a significant number of its supporters still on the fence about granting Erdoğan another term in power, the president will be loath to make moves that could further diminish his popularity. A thaw of relations with Israel would be risky, given that Erdoğan has made a career out of employing anti-Zionist remarks and retains broad support for his scathing condemnations of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. As Ertan points out, “Israel has been an easy target for Erdoğan—not only because of the rather vocal anti-Semitism of his power base but also due to the pro-Palestinian tradition of Turkey’s left.” With a growing number of Arab states normalizing their relations with Israel, the president’s continued solidarity with the Palestinian cause has only bolstered his reputation among such voters.

Meanwhile, any trace of perceived hypocrisy could quickly be capitalized on by the Turkish opposition. This was made clear in September when the Turkish American National Steering Committee, a lobbying outfit with close ties to the president, was forced to withdraw from a declaration—signed only a day prior—that expressed support for the Abraham Accords. This backtracking was the result of a Twitter post by Metin Gürcan, a founder of the oppositional Democracy and Progress Party, who uploaded a photo of the declaration and noted that Erdoğan had previously labeled the accords a “treason to the Palestinian cause.” As rumors of a Turkish-Israeli thaw began circulating in February, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu was quick to reiterate that “any step we take with Israel regarding our relations, any normalization, will not be at the expense of the Palestinian cause, like some other countries… we will never turn back on our core principles.”

Despite the potential costs, Erdoğan still may determine that rapprochement offers significant benefits, namely, the ability to improve his standing with Washington. In doing so, he would be able to settle down banks and foreign investors whose lack of faith in his economic management has crushed the Turkish economy and tanked the lira. In return, the president might be willing to downgrade his relationship with Hamas. This relationship is a crucial point of contention with Tel Aviv, which believes the fundamentalist Palestinian group uses its Istanbul offices to organize attacks on Israeli territory. Though the move could lead the most devout AKP voters to defect to the Felicity Party, a hardline-Islamist outfit that opposes Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, the large majority of Erdoğan’s base is more concerned with Turkey’s deepening economic crisis. According to Ertan, “though some of the newspapers—such as Yeni Akit (a fundamentalist Islamic, far-right broadsheet)—may show a reaction toward rapprochement with Israel and the closure of some Hamas outlets, I do not think this would not create a significant problem.” Notably, when the president curtailed his support for the Muslim Brotherhood last year in a bid to curry favor with Cairo, there was little domestic protest. 

Israeli Indecision

Authorities in Jerusalem may be hesitant to offer the concessions the Turkish president seeks. Gabriel Mitchell, an Israeli-based expert on Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics at Notre Dame University, asks: “[Would Israel] be willing to throw Turkey a bone if throwing Turkey a bone means empowering Erdoğan at his weakest?” Many Israelis directly attribute the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli ties to the figure of Erdoğan, whose decision to downgrade relations was openly opposed by the head of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. With Kılıçdaroğlu possibly serving as the opposition’s unity candidate in the 2023 elections, it may well be in Israel’s interest to put a temporary hold on normalization.

Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid face many of the same domestic political considerations as Erdoğan, heading a parliamentary coalition that enjoys only the slightest of majorities. Outreach toward Ankara would garner backlash, given both Bennett and Lapid’s staunch resistance to dealing with Erdoğan during their time as members of the Israeli opposition. The two men also share a history of supporting anti-Turkish policies; both are advocates for deeper ties with Greece and Cyprus, and they are supportive of motions in the Knesset to recognize the Armenian Genocide (Lapid in particular).

Nevertheless, Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a specialist on Turkish foreign policy at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told FPRI that certain incentives may override domestic considerations. In the eyes of Dr. Lindenstrauss, “if [rapprochement] is presented as if there is a strategic imperative, for example, in the context of the struggle with Iran, there will not be too much domestic backlash.” Mitchell, on the other hand, questions whether such reorientation could happen: “This fragile government does not currently have the capacity to make full choices in foreign policy.”


Institutional Atrophy

 In the long term, there remains a distinct possibility that Ankara may actively pursue a stronger relationship with Tel Aviv. Most anti-AKP voters would support such a direction if the opposition managed to assume power. Alternatively, if Erdoğan secures another five years in office, he will not face the same electoral considerations he does now. Yet, in either case, institutional transformations that have taken place over the past decade will continue to prevent the full-fledged cooperation that Turkey and Israel had grown accustomed to during the 1990s and 2000s.

In Turkey, both the foreign ministry and security services have become heavily politicized and de-professionalized. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, once home to scores of multilingual, highly-skilled, and widely-respected professionals, has been gradually taken over by unqualified AKP apparatchiks with little to no foreign policy experience. During a parliamentary debate on the state of the institution in November, CHP Deputy Utku Çakırözer claimed that “ambassadorial seats have turned into retirement projects for AKP deputies and Palace bureaucrats.” This change has not only led to a deterioration in the quality of Turkish diplomacy in general, but it also means that most experienced officials who dealt with Israel during the heyday of Turkish-Israeli relations have been dismissed. More broadly, the Islamization of the institution’s traditionally Western and secular orientation means officials in Jerusalem will find few sympathetic interlocutors within Ankara’s diplomatic ranks. Though important channels of communication have been maintained between Turkey’s National Intelligence Unit (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT) and Israel’s Mossad, Erdoğan’s decision to blow an Israeli-recruited Iranian spy network’s cover in 2012 significantly damaged the trust that once defined the two agencies’ relationship. MİT Chief Hakan Fidan has also purged his agency of pro-Israel operatives, a move that will hinder intelligence cooperation with Tel Aviv for many years to come.

A similar trend has taken place in Israel. Though this shift has not come in the form of an AKP-style political purge, Gabriel Mitchell stresses that within both governing parties and Israeli institutions, “the voices that said we cannot lose Turkey are gone—in the military they have retired, while the diplomats have been replaced.” As such, notes the Israeli analyst, “there are few people with institutional memory of a functional relationship, people who maintained and cultivated relationships with Turkey.” Moreover, thanks to Turkish breaches of confidence, apathy among Israeli officials has now developed into open hostility. In 2020, Israeli military intelligence took the unprecedented step of classifying Erdoğan’s Turkey as a “challenge” to Tel Aviv’s interests in its annual national security report.

New Alliances for Israel

Looming large over these obstacles are the significant geopolitical transformations that have taken place in the Middle East over the past decade. Since its relationship with Ankara fell apart in 2011, Tel Aviv has focused on finding a variety of international partners to replace the benefits once provided by the Turkish-Israeli relationship. While Israel had long valued the joint military exercises it was able to conduct with Turkey in strategic airspace bordering Syria and Iran, it has since found new partners for these aerial drills in Greece and Romania. Though Turkey was the number one purchaser of Israeli military technology in 2009, Israel has found a more than suitable replacement in India, which now purchases twice as many arms as Ankara once did. In addition, Azerbaijan has increasingly proven an eager customer. In 2020, Israeli weaponry made up 69% of Baku’s major arms imports, up from roughly 10% five years prior. With a number of Middle Eastern nations also showing interest in acquiring this technology, Tel Aviv has little reason to pine for a return to its previous arms trade arrangements with Ankara.

Israel has also forged a pair of incredibly valuable, Eastern Mediterranean partners with Greece and Cyprus, which both happen to be embroiled in longstanding conflicts with Turkey. At first, these newfound relationships originated from a shared desire to build an underwater pipeline that would see Egyptian and Israeli natural gas transported to Europe. Ankara had offered Tel Aviv better terms with respect to drilling rights, but Israel preferred the reliability it had found in its Greek and Cypriot interlocutors. Though U.S. officials recently came out with statements underlining the unfeasibility of this project—a reality well-understood by all parties—the Israel-Greece-Cyprus relationship has since expanded beyond pipeline cooperation, with the three sides reaching agreements on defense contracts and electricity interconnectors in recent years. Gabriel Mitchell also points out that Athens and Nicosia carry unique geopolitical value that few other nations could offer: “Israel wants a stronger relationship with the European Union, of which Greece and Cyprus form a key part,” he says. “They are also part of a broader Mediterranean and European space that Israel envisions itself in.” As such, most analysts agree that Tel Aviv will be careful not to alienate its Hellenic allies by making any moves toward Ankara that could be considered conciliatory. Indeed, President Herzog plans to visit Greece and Cyprus before he travels to Ankara to assure these allies that the restoration of correct relations with Turkey will not be at their expense.

Geopolitics in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East

Meanwhile, significant changes in the relationship between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors will continue to disincentivize full rapprochement with Turkey. These shifts began in the wake of the Arab spring when Israel found itself aligning with a “counterrevolutionary bloc” comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt; these nations united in their view that the uprisings posed a threat to regional security and stability. This alignment put Tel Aviv at odds with Ankara, which strongly supported Islamist protesters and revolutionary forces that were mobilizing across the region. Though Erdoğan has recently changed his tune on the counterrevolutionary bloc, making overtures toward Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, Israel’s newfound, tacit acceptance by most Arab players in the wake of the Abraham Accords has permanently changed Tel Aviv’s calculus toward Ankara. Having normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, Israel is no longer reliant on its diplomatic presence in Turkey as a beachhead in the Muslim world.

In addition, the current stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will continue to hinder normalization. As Dr. Galia Lindenstrauss acutely points out, “there is a correlation between how good relations between Israel and Turkey are to developments in the Israel-Palestine area.” In December, Erdoğan stated as much, declaring that Israeli efforts to make peace with the Palestinians would “undoubtedly contribute to the normalization process” between Ankara and Tel Aviv. It is no coincidence that one of the major facilitators of Turkish-Israeli rapprochement in the early 1990s was Israel’s decision to enter into negotiations with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, in addition to signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. At the same time, as tensions between Israel and Palestine have flared, the Turkish-Israeli relationship has suffered. Both the Gaza War of 2008–2009 and the 2018 Gaza border protests directly led to diplomatic crises with Ankara. Turkish officials harshly condemned Israel’s disproportionate and deadly response to Palestinian uprisings, which were violent during the former conflict, but overwhelmingly peaceful during the latter.

Bilateral Rapprochement in Service of a Regional Realignment

Herzog’s upcoming visit to Turkey may seem like a breakthrough in Turkish-Israeli bilateral ties. However, whatever diplomatic gains are to be had—there are rumors that ambassadors may be mutually reappointed—they are likely to be the result of a greater geopolitical game, being played by both Ankara and Tel Aviv. For Erdoğan, mending surface-level ties with Israel simply appears to be the final step in a process of regional rapprochement. After a recent visit by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to Ankara, the Turkish president noted that whatever steps toward normalization were taken with the UAE, “similar ones [would be taken] with the others,” in reference to Egypt and Israel. Many analysts believe Erdoğan is desperately seeking to reduce regional enmity toward his rule ahead of the 2023 elections in an attempt to cultivate his faltering reputation as a regional leader and key player in the Middle East. In the words of Nazlan Ertan: “Now that most everything—from employment to inflation, from tales of corruption to educational woes, has hit bottom in Turkey and taken its toll even on his traditional supporters, the authoritarian president needs this ‘international statesman’ image more than ever.”

Meanwhile, the president may also be looking to secure any corresponding economic opportunities. Early returns have been somewhat promising: over a three-month span, Abu Dhabi has doled out $15 billion dollars in investments and currency swaps while signing no less than twelve cooperation agreements on defense, trade, logistics, and health. Erdoğan might also be interested in currying favor in Washington where he has never been more unpopular. Following this logic, reconciliation with Israel would primarily serve to boost the president’s standing in the U.S. capital, rather than Tel Aviv.

Israel, for its part, may even be taking a similar approach. With progressive members of the Democratic Party demanding President Biden take a harsher stance toward Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, and the Commander-in-Chief himself looking to thaw relations with Iran in the form of a revived nuclear pact, Tel Aviv might view strengthened relations with NATO-member Turkey as a way to prove its continued value to Washington.

A Long Way Away from the Phantom Pact

Nevertheless, with the regional balance of power having shifted in Israel’s favor, it has few other reasons to seriously engage with Turkey. In 2010, Israel could claim few friends in the Middle East, save on-and-off relationships with Egypt and Jordan. Now that it has established relationships with several Arab states, and strengthened its ties to other Mediterranean players, cooperation with Turkey does not offer the unique advantages it once did. Conversely, Turkey is now isolated and desperate to mend relationships with key regional players. Tel Aviv, for its part, will be happy to let its new Arab friends take the initiative in normalization with Ankara before it makes any such commitment. Though there are positive signals on the Arab-Turkish front, obstacles remain. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently rebuffed Erdoğan when the latter proposed a bilateral meeting in Doha.

Even if Arab players decide to make amends with Turkey, there are no guarantees when it comes to Turkey’s temperamental president. As a senior Turkish diplomat told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity: “Turkey’s ‘good relations’ with any Middle Eastern country is like a sandcastle on the beach. Only a matter of time for the next wave to knock it over.” Keeping this reality in mind, observers should remain cautious when it comes to Turkey and Israel. With both short- and long-term structural limitations in place, it will take years, if not decades, for the two sides to recreate their bygone alliance of the periphery.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities