Prospects and challenges of normalization in Turkey – Israel relations: A Turkish view

The flourishing strategic ties between Turkey and Israel throughout the 1990s created an idealized golden era. Judged by that compass, the deterioration of relations in the last two decades and their inability to mend the rift caused by the Mavi Marmara incident remains very puzzling. While the Turkey-Israel relationship is not characterized by any direct bilateral geopolitical dispute, the current situation is largely a fallout from Turkey’s strong objection to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. While the Palestine issue remains a critical determinant of the future evolution of relations, the changing regional context has also created many areas of strategic divergence between the two countries. Still, there are major areas of convergence and overlapping interests, which force the parties to explore ways for moving beyond the current mutually hurting stalemate characterizing the relationship. As much as the prospects for a step towards normalization have increased lately, it can hardly be taken for granted, as there remain major challenges to overcome.

What went wrong in the relationship?

The Turkish public has traditionally been critical of Israeli policies concerning the Palestinians. Occasionally, certain controversial moves by Israel have triggered bilateral crises, but they were contained before they could escalate into a fallout.  The coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in 2002 did not lead to an immediate collapse in relations with Israel. Despite their ideological disposition that favored the defense of Palestinians’ rights, JDP governments sought to sustain ties with Israel. The relations survived many challenging developments such as the Israeli assassination of the Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yasin in 2004. The tensions started to accumulate gradually, especially after 2006, when Hamas leader Khaled Mashal visited Ankara, following its victory in elections. Nonetheless, Turkey still sought to cultivate friendly ties with Israel; for instance, it offered to mediate between Israel and the Arabs, which at the time became the hallmark example of the ambitious “zero problem with neighbors” principle of Turkey’s new foreign policy vision. Even, during a visit to Ankara in late 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres, along with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, was invited to address the Turkish Grand National Assembly. However, Israel’s operations in Gaza in late 2008 set in motion a cycle of escalation that culminated in the Mavi Marmara crisis in May 2010.

In a relationship that is characterized by the absence of a real strategic bilateral dispute the course of the bilateral ties since the Mavi Marmara incident has been very unusual. The parties failed to develop bilateral mechanisms to contain the simmering tensions after 2008 and prevent a direct confrontation. Afterwards, many attempts at normalization as well as outside mediation initiatives have either failed or produced partial results. It is vital to understand the strategic context within which the parties have shied away from full normalization despite the pressures to fix the crisis.1

Regional context and competing strategic orientations

Domestic trends in the two countries, and the leadership factor definitely played a major role in the unfolding divergence. Successive single party governments in Turkey formed by the JDP, and the leadership style of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan all had an impact on the deterioration of relations with Israel. The reconfiguration of the domestic political system and consolidation of power at the helm, which culminated in a presidential system, enabled him to shape foreign policy priorities in line with the JDP’s strategic vision. His obvious attachment towards the Palestinian issue and his critical views of Israel were major drivers of Turkish policy. Similarly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinian issue, his reading of the post-Arab Spring regional geopolitics, and his strong views about Turkey exacerbated the rift even further. Beyond these factors, the systemic context needs to be taken into account as well. The deterioration in relations coincided largely with an unprecedented turning point in the history of the modern Middle East, where the foundations of the entire regional order were shattered.

During its golden age in the 1990s, the relationship evolved within a certain strategic context. Both Israel and Turkey experienced major difficulties in advancing their interests in a volatile region. What the parties could mutually offer in that strategic partnership was, in essence, a grand bargain of sorts: Turkey’s prospects for expanding Israel’s strategic depth vs. Israel’s ability to offer access to US security guarantees as well as cooperation in the defense industry.

However, the broader regional transformations and the changes in the two countries’ domestic and international orientations have created an altogether new reality in the last decade, which has increasingly undermined the foundations of the strategic relations between them.2 The regional cycle of insecurity, which came as a result of internal conflicts, the fragmentation of state authority, the  collapse of public order, radicalization, the movement of foreign fighters, etc., heightened concerns for survival for all the countries in the Middle East and beyond. For their own part, Turkey and Israel have adopted different readings of the Arab Spring and the forces unleashed by the regional transformation process. Overall, while Turkey positioned itself on a pro-change transformative platform, Israel has supported the status quo forces of the Gulf monarchies, defending the old order. Consequently, the tectonic changes led the two countries into opposing camps in the strategic realignments in the region. This has definitely widened the rift, which had been in the making even before the advent of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, both the substance and style of Turkey’s foreign policy has seen major transformation, with significant impact on the bilateral ties with Israel. A combination of a new strategic orientation and the ideational texture of the new foreign policy culture drove the divergence. Before the onset of the Arab Spring, Turkey had started to conduct its foreign policy on the assumption that the balance of power was shifting to its favor in the Middle East, where it could assert its strategic autonomy.3 Through an ambitious regional policy, Turkey believed it had broken its perceived isolation within the Middle East. Parallel to this reading, Turkey increasingly started to assert a leadership role in the region and in the Islamic world, by taking a very bold stand to advocate  Muslim causes. Drawing on its soft power and later gradually its coercive power, Turkey claimed a moral authority, which resulted in its questioning of Israeli policies in the region. From the perspective of the Turkish strategic thinkers and policy makers, as a “new Middle East” was in the making, Israel could not act in an unrestrained manner. Hence, Israel has been a target of Turkey’s exercising its coercive diplomacy.

The same strategic culture continued to shape Turkey’s regional policies in the early phase of the Arab Spring.4 As the actors aligned with Turkey’s regional vision were on the ascendant, this development definitely emboldened Turkey’s belief that it could further isolate Israel and coerce it to change its behavior vis-à-vis Palestinians. However, the subsequent phases of the Arab Spring turned the tide in unexpected ways. Turkey has been confronted with a rather adverse strategic environment, due to the deepening cycle of violence in Iraq and Syria. The changing balance of power and the reshuffling of the regional alliances in response to the securitization of the Arab Spring played a large part in the further drift in Turkey-Israel relations and in undermining the prospects for normalization. Consequently, substantive strategic disputes have become part of the bilateral relationship.

This is where we need to look at the issue from Israel’s reading of the regional developments. While in the initial phase of the Arab Spring the dominance of threats and uncertainty created a negative outlook regarding Israel’s security and stability in the Middle East, in recent years, Israel has found itself in a more favorable environment for the advancement of its interests. Indeed, Israeli strategic thinking has come to position the country regionally in a completely new light. Previously, Israel used to live in an environment of isolation, and the perception of being surrounded by enemies dominated the strategic thinking. In the course of the Arab Spring, the reshuffling of the regional alliances has led to a new situation where Israel has largely changed that calculation. Prime Minister Netanyahu has played a very decisive and instrumental role in this process, so that Israel has moved away from a threat-oriented to an opportunity-oriented view on regional affairs. Eventually, Israel has changed the perception of being isolated. It has weathered the direct security challenges from the conflict in Syria, deepened ties with neighboring Jordan and Egypt and forged new partnerships with other Arab actors. In this process, it has either instigated the formation of an anti-Turkey agenda, or has aligned its position with unfolding anti-Turkey groupings.

In particular, the rapid transformation of Israel’s relations with the Arab Gulf monarchies has been noteworthy. Capitalizing on the new environment of regional insecurity triggered by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the unprecedented turmoil, Israel has made important inroads into Gulf affairs. In addition to their threat perceptions from Iran, the regime security concerns of the monarchies also forced a reconsideration of their relations with other regional actors, including Israel. Israel has managed to find a new common ground with the assertiveness of the Gulf countries, which sought to play larger roles in regional geopolitics. They have expressed interest in engagement with Israel. Gulf countries’ concerns about Turkey’s rising profile and what they call “interference in Arab affairs” has been one of the shared interests driving their rapprochement with Israel. Discreet strategic conversations have gradually evolved into direct and open contacts, which eventually culminated in the signing of the Abraham Accords. In the wake of the Abraham Accords, Israel feels much more emboldened, and sees its room for maneuver expanded in the region. While Israel’s connectivity and diplomatic capabilities within the region and globally have expanded, this development has aggravated its rivalry with Turkey.

Are we any closer to a reconciliation today?

A number of developments in the last year or so have raised expectations about a normalization. Some statements coming from the Turkish government, including President Erdoğan’s remarks about moving relations with Israel forward, raised the expectations for a breakthrough.5 Indeed, many observers have argued that the current situation does not serve the interest of the either party. By failing to normalize, the two countries have foregone the opportunity to reap the benefits of cooperation in a region in transition. Although several attempts at normalization failed in the past despite such arguments in favor of normalization, many observers believe that a new window of opportunity has been opened. Indeed, one can point to several factors that support an optimistic expectation about finding a new common ground between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

First, the regional environment is much more benign compared to five years ago. Although the geopolitical rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean has been heightened, the existential threats posed by the regional cycle of insecurity triggered by the Arab Spring are no longer there. Both countries have weathered the geopolitical storm and found ways to ease their security concerns. This new situation arguably makes it easier to explore ways for normalizing relations.

Second, both countries are in a better position to assess the limits to pursuing their regional policies in opposition to the other. For its part, Israel has realized the limits to the dividends from burgeoning ties with other regional actors. As much as they might offer Israel the chances for a new opening in the region, they may not be a substitute for cordial relations with Turkey in other regional theaters, especially in Syria or Iran.

For its part, Turkey has also come to realize the necessity of fixing some of the existing disagreements with regional actors, including Israel. There has been a growing belief domestically that a solution to the East-Med disputes on Turkey’s terms would necessitate normalization with Israel as well as Egypt. Following Turkey’s groundbreaking move in Libya, and its pursuit of a coercive diplomacy in East-Med in early 2020, many analysts suggested that the conditions would be ripe for revisiting Turkey-Israel relations. According to this line of thinking, if Turkey were to truly consolidate its gains in Libya and also achieve its objectives in East-Med geopolitical rivalry, it would need to end its current isolation and break the nascent anti-Turkey alignment in the region. This could only be achieved through a genuine normalization with Egypt and Israel in order to constrain their deepening times with Greece and Cyprus. Especially considering the fact that the East-Med policy of Turkey was supported by a broad coalition of secular nationalists domestically, expectations were high that the government would be more attuned to finding a geopolitical deal with Egypt and Israel than before.

Third, the parties in fact share overlapping perspectives on a host of issues ranging from the economy to energy and intelligence. Although they may have different opinions as to how to operationalize a coordinated policy, they have shared concerns in containing Iran’s regional ambitions. Likewise, in the Syrian theater, they have a number of overlapping interests including but not limited to the Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah. Lately, even in the case of southern Caucasus, the two countries have apparently aligned their policies by supporting Azerbaijan militarily.

Last but not least, it has been argued that the new Biden presidency also provided incentives for normalization. Considering many failed initiatives at mediation, the likelihood of the new administration to push for a Turkey-Israel normalization agenda remains limited. Nonetheless, in anticipation of a new American foreign policy towards the Middle East, many regional actors have moved to revisit their policies. This similar dynamic arguably has forced Turkey and Israel to rethink their relationship as well.

Why a full normalization remains a weak possibility

Definitely, the areas of convergence are increasing compared to a few years ago, and the parties have engaged in some conversations towards finding a way out of the current impasse. Nonetheless, such positive steps do not automatically suggest normalization is imminent. The forces that drive the divergence are deep and entrenched. A number of formidable challenges remain before a genuine normalization process can be engaged.

From the perspective of Israel, several factors have rendered normalization difficult. For one, Turkey’s policy towards the Palestinian issue remains the major source of concern. Turkey’s efforts to influence the intra-Palestinian dynamics has troubled Israel for a long time. It wants Turkey to terminate its unequivocal support for Hamas. Recently, likewise, Turkey’s growing interest in the status of Jerusalem has also aggravated such concerns.6

Moreover, the arguments in favor of normalization were predicated on Israel’s isolation in the region, hence a certain dependence on Turkey, which would presumably expand Israel’s strategic depth. But with Israel feeling much more emboldened and connected to the region through a new network of partnerships, the perceived dependence on Turkey has also decreased. This has had implications for Israel’s attitude towards other regional issues or actors involving Turkey, where it has increasingly aligned with the actors opposite to Turkey.

Furthermore, the Israeli side has come to see Turkey pursuing a deliberate policy of delegitimizing Israel, through its policy in international platforms or in discursive practices. Israel expects such “attacks” to come to an end, and sees normalization as an opportunity towards this end. However, the failure of various normalization attempts, including a 2016 deal to normalize diplomatic relations involving compensation for the Mavi Marmara incident,7 have created a very adverse reading of relations with Turkey in Israel. The fact that even the positive incentives for cooperation in transportation projects created by Israel’s gas discoveries did not instigate normalization with Turkey further consolidated a gloomy reading. The perception that the relations would remain always in a crisis mode and that it would be hard to move beyond this has been internalized widely. In this process, broad constituencies in Israel have come to the conclusion that “Turkey is lost.” This perception was further bolstered by the electoral victories of the governing AK Party.

The altered geopolitical realities have further undermined relations, by questioning Israel’s need to have good relations with Turkey after all. Overall, in Israeli strategic circles, the perception that Israel has the upper hand in the relationship is dominant. If a normalization is to occur, the initiative should come from Turkey and it also should acquiescence to Israel8.

From Turkey’s perspective, settling for a normalization deal that will favor Israel is hardly acceptable. For its own part, Turkey’s quest for strategic autonomy has reduced the perceived need for Israel, as it sees the Middle East through different lenses. There exist no strong domestic constituencies to advocate for a full normalization with Israel. While some groups may call for a normalization with Israel, they do not possess the wherewithal to influence the government to change its behavior toward Israel. Likewise, the utility of normalization with Israel remains uncertain for the leadership.

Moreover, as much as the recent geopolitical developments in East-Med might have raised Turkey’s need to mend ties with Israel, at the same time Turkey sees Israel’s involvement in many of the anti-Turkey regional agendas. Turkey’s exclusion from the East-Med gas forum and joint military exercises and security cooperation with other countries are feeding Turkey’s perceptions of antagonism.  They are taken as an indication of Tel Aviv’s willingness to sustain a rivalry with Ankara. Traditionally Israel had been sensitive about getting involved in Turkey’s disputes with third countries and had trod a fine line. It had expected Turkey to solve the outstanding disputes with other countries, such as the Cyprus issue. But increasingly Israel has also been much less constrained by this consideration and has given up its hesitancy in developing relations with countries with which Turkey’s relations were troubled. In the same vein, some signs indicating Israel’s support for the aspirations of revisionist Kurdish actors in Iraq and Syria, which came to the fore during the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq’s independence referendum in 2017, continue to ruffle feathers in Ankara. Such developments deepen the perceptions of a strategic rivalry.

Furthermore, it is important to see how, to a large extent, Turkey’s dispute with Israel has been bundled with other East-Med disputes, and its resolution may require a much more comprehensive step than a bilateral deal with Tel Aviv. This is best illustrated in the case of the prospective energy cooperation in East-Med.9 The prospects for cooperation in energy have failed to provide incentives to normalize so far. There may be some market for Israeli gas in Turkey, but considering the level of Israeli involvement with Cyprus and Greece and also the new geopolitical realities, it will be hard for Israel to reorient towards Turkey. Turkey therefore realizes that Israel might be constrained by its existing commitments to Greece and Egypt, even if Tel Aviv is keen to find a deal with Ankara. Probably Israel will insist that Turkey also engages in a dialogue with these countries, before moving forward in a normalization process with Turkey, which reflects the extent to which several regional disputes have been intertwined.

For Turkey, last but not least, decoupling its problems with Israel from its policy on the Palestine issue will be difficult, considering how ideational factors play a major role in shaping Turkish foreign policy. As part of its claims for leadership in regional and Islamic issues, Turkey so far has sought to play a key role in the Palestine-Israel conflict. The crisis triggered by the Trump administration’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, which culminated in the abrupt end to the Turkey-Israel normalization deal of 2016, has been a reminder of the centrality of the Palestine issue. Continuing this line, following the August 2020 UAE-Israeli joint statement on the normalization of diplomatic ties and the signing of the Abraham Accords, Turkey reacted strongly, arguing that it undermined the Palestinian cause. As things stand, no drastic change in Israeli policies towards the Palestinians are on the horizon, considering the trends in Israeli domestic politics. Nor will Turkey cease its efforts to insert itself into the Palestinian issue in various roles. As long as the Turkish leadership continues to advocate a just, fair and sustainable solution to the Palestine issue as something akin to a precondition, the bar for normalization will continue to remain high.

The way ahead?

The fallout between Turkey and Israel and its lingering all these years has been internalized in a certain strategic context. As has been argued in this paper, the altered realities of the regional security environment and the two countries’ competing readings of strategic trends laid the foundations of the decoupling. The fallout has been entrenched and it has created its own dynamics, which remain as yet another major obstacle to full normalization. Nonetheless, it needs to be noted that the difficult period in the relationship coincided with one of the most critical periods in the history of the modern Middle East, where a major geopolitical alteration has been taking place. Although the parties were involved in a fierce rivalry and tensions, it is also important to note that they have not turned into outright hostility.

While the Palestine issue remains a major driver of the poor state of the relations, the bilateral dispute has increasingly gained a strategic character today, as the two countries have been positioned on opposite sides in many of the outstanding regional crises. In addition to the impact of the factors detailed above, the adverse domestic contexts, the weakening of constituencies defending the relationship, the relative indifference to a normalization agenda, the erosion of trust on both sides, and the role of identity, ideology and leadership all present important obstacles to a normalization agenda.

Despite the costs of non-normalization and the missed opportunities for cooperation, the continuation of the crisis reflects a certain strategic choice on the part of two parties in that both sides consider this situation as tolerable or else they see no pressing incentives to fix the problems. On balance, the cost of non-normalization remains obscure; it is mostly in the form of “missed opportunities” rather than in inflicting tangible damage to the parties, which suggests they may somehow tolerate the current stalemate. Indeed, the parties seem to have internalized the current state of affairs, while economic ties have continued despite the crisis of the last decade.

Nonetheless, despite all the talk of a normalization, Israel continues its alignment with other actors pursuing hostile policies towards Turkey, which raises the risk of path-dependence. Israel’s new alignments and deepening partnerships with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt may eventually have long-term effects. Therefore, it is very likely that the Turkish-Israel relationship will retain its character as an ongoing strategic rivalry, if not outright hostility. Today the best prospect for managing Turkey-Israel relations would be to conduct them on the basis of some form of compartmentalization.

  1. https://www.insightturkey.com/articles/the-changing-dynamics-of-turkeys-relations-with-israel-an-analysis-of-securitization []
  2. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2400/RR2445/RAND_RR2445.pdf. []
  3. https://www.academia.edu/1121561/Quest_for_Strategic_Autonomy_Continues_or_How_to_Make_Sense_of_Turkey_s_New_Wave_. []
  4. Şaban Kardaş, “Revisionism and Resecuritization of Turkey’s Middle East Policy: A Neoclassical Realist Explanation,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Vol.23, No.3, pp.490-501. []
  5. https://www.voanews.com/europe/turkey-poised-reset-relations-israel []
  6. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1795236/middle-east []
  7. https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-turkey-to-exchange-ambassadors-in-coming-days/ []
  8. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/turkeysource/turkey-is-seeking-a-fresh-start-with-israel/ []
  9. https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/menara_fn_3.pdf []

Şaban Kardaş

Professor Şaban Kardaş, TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Ankara

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