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Turkish-Israeli rapprochement seems difficult

Charles de Gaulle, Turkish, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara, Tel Aviv, Yossi Cohen, Palestinian, Syria

Opinion

Turkish-Israeli rapprochement seems difficult

In any case, as of now, Turkish-Israeli rapprochement seems difficult: it would take great Turkish diplomatic efforts to set aside all of its differences with Tel Aviv, and Athens (not to mention Paris) in the East Mediterranean – the power balance has been changing in the region since at least 2020 as signaled by the French “Charles de Gaulle” nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that Paris sent to sail the Greek continental waters that Ankara claims. Writes Uriel Araujo

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog made a historical visit to the Turkish capital, Ankara, on March 9, becoming the first Israeli president to do so in 14 years. It all started with a series of phone calls between the two countries’ leaders last month, and many are now hailing a supposed “new era” of Turkish-Israeli friendship. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the event as “historic” and “a turning-point”. He added Ankara is ready to cooperate with Tel Aviv in the energy sector.

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Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi stated Turkey and Israel could cooperate in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is quite a remarkable development, especially considering that in August 2020,  Yossi Cohen, the head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, reportedly said that Turkey is a bigger threat to Tel Aviv than Iran itself. The lowest point in Turkish-Israeli relations was probably the May 2010 incident when a Turkish flotilla set sail to break the Israeli blockade of Palestinian Gaza and the Turkish activists onboard one of the ships were murdered by Israeli commandos, thus causing a diplomatic crisis, that was followed by other quagmires in the last years.

Even with all the tensions, bilateral trade has been good, though. It consisted mostly of Turkish exports to Israel and increased in value from $3.8 billion (in 2008) to $6.5 billion (in 2020). In any case, both countries would certainly benefit from cooperation on a number of regional issues pertaining to security and trade, as well as tourism. Both states were aligned in their support for Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, and both also share some concerns in Syria.

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Since the Abraham Accords, a number of Arab countries who did not recognize the state of Israel normalized their relations with the Jewish state and in some cases (such as the UAE, for instance) even went on to deepen strategic cooperation agreements. This has been so largely due to the fact that many such Arab states actually saw Iran and Turkey – and no longer Israel – as the main threats. We are living interesting times and seemingly unlikely rapprochements have unfold or at least have been attempted.

For example, Iran and Saudi Arabia, that historically had been archenemies, seem to have been seeking to normalize their diplomatic relations for a while now, although a scheduled round of talks was suspended this week (just after Saudi Arabia conducted a mass execution of Shiite activists). The series of normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel has also increased a Turkish sense of isolation. In this changing world, maybe Ankara and Tel Aviv too can reach reconciliation. Could this be so? Turkish-UAE reconciliation efforts might help to pave the way for it. In February, Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies expert on Turkish foreign policy, claimed that The Turkish-UAE rapprochement was viewed as further assurance that Turkey is really serious in its current overtures also towards the state of Israel.

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In any case, as of now, Turkish-Israeli rapprochement seems difficult: it would take great Turkish diplomatic efforts to set aside all of its differences with Tel Aviv, and Athens (not to mention Paris) in the East Mediterranean – the power balance has been changing in the region since at least 2020 as signaled by the French “Charles de Gaulle” nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that Paris sent to sail the Greek continental waters that Ankara claims.

Greek-Turkish maritime disputes can be traced back to ancient times. Today they consist mostly of disagreements over territorial waters and claims to islands in the Aegean Sea plus the Cyprus question. But there is also an energy factor: Athens has very strong military and energy ties with Tel Aviv. Beyond that, Greece and the state of Israel seem to be turning into important economic and diplomatic partners. The Jewish state currently seeks to attain the status of a petroleum transportation and storage superpower.

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For example, in January 2020, then Israeli Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a deal with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts for an EastMed pipeline to ship gas from these three countries to Europe (via the Greek island of Crete). Such an agreement was a kind of a blow to Turkish regional interests. Israeli geostrategic gas and oil interests are part of a regional competition with the Republic of Turkey and this has motivated a naval show of force as recently as November 2021 when the Jewish state, the US, and the UAE launched a joint drill in the Red Sea. Paris, in its turn, has been disputing Eastern Mediterranean dominance with Ankara for a while.

Moreover, since at least 2020 France, Greece, and Israel have been coordinating their efforts to counter Turkish ambitions pertaining to hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel thus risks giving its French and Greek allies cause for concern if it chooses to enhance its ties with Ankara. Besides, Turkey is a supporter of the Palestinian cause and still maintains good relations with Hamas, for instance, and, more broadly, with the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Since at least last year, Turkey has been seeking rapprochement with historical foes (such as Armenia and the UAE). Underneath such friendly gestures there lie Turkish neo-Ottomanist ambitions for hegemony and Ankara’s desire to project itself as a regional and global player combining both soft and hard power. Right now Erdogan is trying to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian war and even the Bosnia and Herzegovina crisis. Today’s surprising Turkish-Israeli dialogue must therefore be seen as part of this larger context.

From the South Caucasus to North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe, skillfully regulating its competition with Russia while trying to gain influence within NATO, Turkey navigates through complicated bilateral relations. At this point, Ankara’s sophisticated foreign policy seems to aspire to reconcile and embrace everything, like the meme-famous pelican. This is a complex game though and any possible future Israeli-Turkish strategic cooperation is still a far cry.

Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts

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