Thanks to the Ukraine crisis, Turkey and Israel have begun to reconcile
Naftali Bennet’s visit to Bahrain, the first ever by an Israeli prime minister, the warm welcome that the country’s King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa extended to him at the royal palace, and the announcement that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa will visit Israel all have garnered considerable attention among the news media and Middle East observers. That Israel will station a military official in the country — no doubt without objection from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s neighbor across the causeway that links them — is yet another indication of the growing security cooperation between Gulf Arabs and the Jewish state.
There is, however, another relationship with Israel that is developing at the same time in the eastern Mediterranean. After years of friction and vocal support for Israel’s arch enemy, Hamas, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has begun to reach out to Jerusalem. Erdoğan also has been mending fences with other regional actors, most notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He recently visited the UAE for the first time in a decade and had what was described as an “excellent meeting” with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.
The outreach to Israel takes on special significance, however, because of the overt hostility that dominated interaction between the two countries for years. Relations spiraled downward after the Israeli war with Hamas in 2008-09. They hit a low point after the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos seeking to prevent the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” from reaching Hamas-ruled Gaza, boarded the ship and killed nine passengers, of whom eight were Turkish nationals.
In 2016, there was a short-lived improvement in relations between the two countries, including restoration of full diplomatic relations, when their parliaments ratified an agreement that included compensation to the families of those who had died or were injured on the Mavi Marmara. Within two years, however, relations plummeted once again when Washington recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move to which Erdoğan bitterly objected.
Throughout the period of political friction, however, Israel and Turkey maintained significant trade relations, exceeding $6 billion by the beginning of this year. Over $4.5 billion of that sum consisted of Turkish exports to Israel, making it an important trading partner for Ankara. In addition, Turkish Airlines did not cease to fly to Tel Aviv, though El Al suspended its flights to Turkey for a decade, because of security concerns, until it resumed them in 2020.
A week ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu phoned his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid. The call was ostensibly to enquire after Lapid’s health; the Israeli had come down with COVID-19. Such Turkish solicitousness for an Israeli official was highly unusual — it was the first conversation between Turkish and Israeli foreign ministers in 13 years. Yet the phone call followed a condolence call from Erdoğan to Israeli President Isaac Herzog on the loss of his mother.
Erdoğan’s new warmth toward a state that he consistently has vilified is happening in part because of the Ukraine crisis. To begin with, Erdoğan had hoped to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, because he thought he had a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin evidently was not interested, much to Erdoğan’s annoyance. Moreover, despite its good relations with Russia, Turkey supported Azerbaijan in its latest conflict with Armenia, which long has been close to Moscow.
Even more tellingly, Turkey denounced Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and has expanded its military cooperation with Ukraine. The prospect of both the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and the possibility that sanctions could target the TurkStream pipeline that carries gas from Russia to Turkey, which is then pumped to Europe, has led Erdoğan to consider an arrangement that would enable Turkey to supply Europe with Israeli gas.
How far Turkish-Israeli relations can develop is an open question. To begin with, Israel has developed close ties with Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria, all of which have less-than-warm relations with Ankara. In addition, it is not at all clear that Putin will actually invade Ukraine. Indeed, even if he were only to take a small slice of that country — for example, the territory between Crimea and the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk provinces — the West might not respond with tougher sanctions and, in particular, Germany might not cancel the Nord Stream 2 project.
Nevertheless, the Ukraine crisis clearly has accelerated an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. Taken together with Ankara’s outreach to the UAE and other Gulf states, Turkey’s warmer relationship with Israel promises to realign the balance of power yet further in the always volatile Middle East.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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