1. The Nascent Security Architecture in the Middle East
The Biden administration decided to return the Iranian nuclear agreement that was withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018. It is expected that the revitalization of the deal would enable Iran to throw the United States (US) sanctions off and to reach the blocked funds. For regional countries, Iran had been instrumentalizing these funds with the aim of boosting its influence in the region. On the other hand, the fact that the US has withdrawn its security umbrella from its regional allies urged regional countries to have embarked on the formation of a new alliance without the US. In particular, the Biden administration did not take a sharp stand against the Houthi movement, which the US delisted as a foreign terrorist organization. Against the backdrop, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been in search of pulling Syria and Lebanon out of Iranian influence gradually and circling them in the Arabic sphere. In addition, Gulf countries signed the al-Ula declaration last year and formally ended the dispute with Qatar.
Looking at the big picture, it seems that a new axis against Iran was formed with the US, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia following the former US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017. During the tenure of the Trump administration, almost every country in the Middle East tried to have a close relationship with Israel in order to assure the security of their regimes by means of US assistance. The new axis against Iran was involved in Israel, UAE, and Bahrain with Abraham Accords in 2020. Israel and regional countries strive to adopt a new order in which Iran could play an aggressive role as soon as the nuclear talks are in progress. Indeed, Tehran had used the nuclear agreement with the Obama administration to strengthen its presence in Syria and Iraq. As part of this process, Türkiye and Israel decided to solve the rift in their relations. The relationship between two countries has witnessed a relationship with ups and downs as Turkey criticizes Israel’s aggression to the Palestianian people’s rights and Israel problematizes Türkiye’s relations with Hamas. These two issues structurally keep the Türkiye-Israel relationship in a restricted environment.
2. Evolution of Israeli Foreign Policy
The founding doctrine of Israeli foreign policy, The Periphery Doctrine (PD), sorted the regional countries into two groups. The first group was the Arab countries, which were seen as an existential threat to Israel’s security. The countries in the first group had advocated the ideal of Pan-Arabism with the dynamism of the Nasserist wave. In the second group, there were minority groups in Arab countries and non-Arab peripheral countries such as Türkiye and Iran. According to the periphery strategy, Israel could cooperate against the existential threat to Israel from Arab countries.
However, Israel’s perception of security has undergone a dramatic evolution in the process. While Israel has signed normalization agreements with the two states (Egypt and Jordan) with the longest border, there is a complete internal disturbance in Israel’s northern neighbor countries, Syria and Lebanon. Iran-backed groups in Syria and Lebanon have become the main threat to Israel. In the historical process, Israel’s threat perception has moved from the first group of countries to the second group of other countries. Yoel Guzansky accounts for this situation through the “Reverse Periphery Doctrine” (RPD). This concept states that Israel’s most prominent regional threat comes from Iran and Türkiye. Contrary to the Periphery Doctrine, Israel develops its relations with the countries in the first group in response to threats from the second group.
Although Guzansky puts Türkiye and Iran in the same category, there are essential differences between the historical course and current situation of Israel-Türkiye relations and Iran-Israel relations:
- The Iranian Islamic Revolution has been a severe breaking point regarding Iran-Israel relations. Although Türkiye-Israel relations followed a fluctuating graphic, they did not break apart.
- Even in the most challenging periods of relations, cooperation between the two countries in specific areas such as trade and intelligence continued steadily. The doors of dialogue between Türkiye and Israel have never been completely closed.
- While Iran and Israel act with opposite goals in conflict areas such as Syria and Lebanon, there are common goals between Türkiye and Israel on these issues.
- Despite continuing relations with Hamas, Israel continued to get closer with Türkiye. On the other hand, Iran is considered a monolithic threat by the Israeli security elite, along with its proxies.
When considering these points, it is necessary to evaluate the relations between the two countries with their unique characteristics.
3. Factors Affecting Türkiye-Israel Rapprochement
3.1: Security: When the history of relations between the two countries is examined, we can see that common security concerns constitute a basis of bilateral relations. In the 1990s, when relations were at their peak, the bilateral ties focused on defense and security cooperation. Although the military’s domination over the Turkish political life gradually disappeared with the AK Party era, intelligence cooperation and bilateral trade continued even in the tensest periods of relations between the two countries.
Israel is one of the countries most affected by the shrinking of the US security umbrella in the Middle East due to the US withdrawal from the region. Unlike Israel, the other allies of the US follow a two-way preventive strategy against Iran based on both dialogue and defense. For example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, develop new cooperations with countries such as Russia and China in trade and defense areas. On the other hand, they strive to maintain their relations with the US to a large extent. Alternatively, Israel continues to implement a melt containment strategy on Iran. That’s why Israel attempted to normalize some Arabic countries. Notwithstanding, the Arabic countries which have normalized their relationship with Israel have different expectations from the normalization process with Israel. Israel interprets the process as an attempt to create a regional defense bloc against Iran. Although this goal of Israel does not fully comply with the regional countries’ goals, the fact that Israel somehow surrounded Iran with diplomatic steps is considered a success.
Türkiye is of great importance in Israel’s strategy to contain Iran. When evaluating the spheres of influence of the two countries, Türkiye and Israel have been on the brink of the rapprochement. For instance, the two countries’ common interests in Azerbaijan seriously disturb Iran. Türkiye and Azerbaijan are threatened in the video allegedly shared from a channel belonging to the Revolutionary Guards. In addition, Reuters claimed that the Iranian missile attack targeted a villa in Erbil where the negotiations of Israeli gas transfer to Türkiye via the KRG were held. All of them point to Türkiye’s strategic position against the Iranian threat in the eyes of Israel.
3.2: Economy: It is noteworthy that even in the most difficult periods of the Türkiye-Israel relationship, the trade volume between the two countries has steadily been increasing. Many analyzes published in the Israeli media about the rapprochement argue that the recent depreciation of the Turkish Lira has pushed Ankara to a more moderate approach to its foreign policy. In the press statement held after the bilateral meeting with Herzog, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphasized the size of the trade volume between the two countries and announced the goal of reaching 10 billion dollars in 2022. Before and after the meeting, business people from both countries made mutual visits.
There are many Turkish companies operating actively in Israel. Especially in the building materials and construction sector, Turkish companies are the second-largest supplier after China. In addition, the Jenin Organized Industrial Zone (OIZ), which is still under construction and carried out by the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Türkiye (TOBB) Industry for Peace initiative, has substantial potential in terms of the two countries’ trade volume. Although it is a project that has been going on for a long time, essential steps have been taken in the last period to complete the project, and it is expected that Jenin OIZ will become operational at the end of 2022.
3.3: Politics: Türkiye-US relationship has played an important role in the recent rapprochement of Türkiye-Israel relations. The Turkish ambassador to Washington, Hasan Murat Mercan, who had critical contacts with leading figures of the Jewish Community in the US, considerably impacted the rapprochement process. In addition, a joint memorandum was signed between the Turkish-American National Steering Committee (TASC), known for its close relations with Türkiye, and the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce (OJC). The declaration included items such as combating antisemitism and islamophobia and promoting bilateral trade and business relations. Yet TASC had to announce its withdrawal from this declaration due to public reactions.
This active role played by Mercan’s contact with Jewish groups in the US point to one of the main motivations that pushed Türkiye to get closer to Israel. The Tel Aviv administration and Jewish groups in the US significantly impact the Washington administration. The step towards rapprochement with Israel and Jewish groups was taken to soften the US-Türkiye relations, which entered a bad period with the Biden administration taking office. In this new period, the regional countries act on a bilateral balance to maximize their interests. For pragmatic reasons, the regional countries seek to enhance their relations with those countries with disagreements. Because of the new regional strategy of the US, the possibility of Iran returning to the nuclear agreement, the increasing Iranian threat in the region, and the Russia-Ukraine war, many uncertainties emerge for the future of the region.
While a new regional order is taking shape, Türkiye is following a pragmatic approach by making minimum concessions from its principles. Türkiye condemned the terror attacks at the lowest diplomatic level to protect relations with Israel in terms of its interests. Conversely, Türkiye’s ministry of foreign affairs censured Israel’s aggressions against the Palestinians during Ramadan month, which reflects the balance of principle-interest. Finally, the Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu emphasised that Türkiye’s relations with Israel depend on Israel’s Palestinian policies. Türkiye adheres to the principle by balancing its interest.
3.4: East Mediterranean and Energy: One of the main topics of the Türkiye-Israel rapprochement is undoubtedly the Eastern Mediterranean and Energy issue. When Türkiye-Israel relations were tense, Israel sought to develop diplomatic ties alternative to Turkey. In this process, an anti-Türkiye bloc was raised in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel established a tripartite framework in 2016 with Greece and the Greek Cyprus administration to improve defense and economic ties. The cooperation deepened much around energy diplomacy. Signed in 2020 by the three countries, the East-Med project traced out an undersea conduit to carry Israel’s Leviathan gas field, which, with reserves of 620 billion cubic meters, could supply 10-12 billion cubic meters a year to Europe via Cyprus and Greece. However, the project collapsed in January 2022 as the Biden administration rescinded US support.
With the Russia-Ukraine war, alternative energy sources to Russian gas in energy security have come to the top agenda for Western countries. One of the alternatives is Israeli transfer to Europe to ensure production stability in Israel’s natural gas fields. A possible pipeline to bring the Israeli gas to Europe through Türkiye has been recently seen technically and fiscally as the best feasible solution. The inadequacy of Israeli gas to meet the needs of Europe (326 billion cubic meters a year) required to add the gas extracted from the countries of the region to this line. The pipeline through Türkiye would run around 500 kilometers and cost up to $1,5 billion to build, while the EastMed project has envisioned a 1,900-kilometer pipeline running from Israel to Cyprus and then to Greece and Italy at the cost of some $7.9 billion. On the other hand, Israel does not want to risk a rupture with Greece and the Greek Cyprus administration. Indeed, there are disagreements in the East Mediterranean, such as continental shift, maritime boundaries, and Cyprus problem to improve gas projects. Because of leading the anti-Türkiye bloc, Israel thinks that developing its relations with Türkiye at the expense of these countries will seriously damage its international image and credibility. In the last instance, the Turkish route to carry Israeli gas to Europe has the above-noted actual or potential problems in the East Mediterranean. The other caveat of transfer via pipeline is that the EU’s vision on the climate crisis aims to decrease the gas share in its energy basket by 25 percent by 2030 and zero it out by 2050. Consequently, Europe’s LNG imports have considerably increased.
Israel also considers different alternatives in terms of energy transfer. Israel could plan to pipe its gas to Egypt’s liquefied natural gas plants for conservation of LNG and export by ship to Europe, regarded as the only way to overcome the political obstacles. In this case, Israel would use Egyptian LNG facilities or build a liquefaction plant in the Leviathan field. As another alternative, EuroAsia Interconnector, a project carried out jointly by the Israel-Greek Cypriot Administration, is pointed out. This project aims to integrate the electricity infrastructure of the three countries. It is envisaged that the Israeli gas transfer to Europe would be drawn on electricity generation. Similar to the EastMed project, there are some question marks about this project in terms of cost, implementation, and construction time.
4. What does the Turkish-Israeli relationship put in the regional issues?
The rapprochement of Türkiye and Israel will not change Türkiye’s current position on the Palestine issue and particularly Türkiye’s Hamas policies that Israel problematizes. Türkiye stressed that the Israel administration should not pursue policies that would jeopardize the two-state solution and not prevent the TIKA and the Turkish Red Crescent from carrying out activities in the region to improve the living conditions of the Palestinians. Türkiye underlined the importance of the historical status of Jerusalem and the preservation of the religious identity and sanctity of Masjid Al-Aqsa. It is remarkable considering Arab leaders signing normalization deals with Israel failed to give importance to these issues. So far, the new Israeli government has not put forward a game-changing policy related to both settlements and the two-state solution. Finally, Israel urged Ankara to take some steps against the presence of Hamas leaders in Türkiye before launching reconciliation talks. Türkiye views Hamas as the official representative of the Palestine people. Therefore, Türkiye has not taken steps backward in its relationship with Hamas, even when it comes to recalibrating the relationship between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
Striving to rein in Iranian influence, the UAE, Bahrain, and recently Jordan and Egypt seek to reduce the vacuum in Syria by normalizing relations with Assad. Israel is aware that Iran will preserve its influence via Hezbollah, seen as a vital foe by Israel in Syria. Given the situation in which the Assad regime is unable to control the entire country, Israel would keep open a dialogue with the PYD that Türkiye designated a terrorist organization to oppose the consolidation of the Iranian presence. As a result, the rapprochement of Türkiye and Israel does not converge the two countries’ interests in Syria. Even Israel’s aid to the PYD could deteriorate the normalization of Türkiye and Israel. Israel not merely denounced Türkiye’s operation in northern Syria in 2019 but also expressed its support for the independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdish region in 2017.
A series of regional summits were organized to generate an alliance between Israel and Arabic countries. The aim of these summits is to discuss how the regional countries counterbalance Iran in the environment of the new regional dynamics resulting from the continuation of the American pivot to Asia. In one of these meetings, the Negev summit, the main agenda of the attendees was “Iran issue.” Although Egypt, UAE, and Morocco expressed their support for the two-state solution that proposed a framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have come closer with Israel to achieve their interests. Türkiye’s rapprochement with Israel and UAE could mean cementing ties with countries that could counterbalance Iran. The expectation of a more aggressive Iran may have been a catalyst for the rapprochement of Israel and the UAE with Türkiye. Although Turkish officials spoke out that their relationship with Israel is not an alliance against Iran, it is expected that Türkiye and Iran will be rivals in Syria and Iraq. Türkiye-supported soldiers of the Syrian National Army have faced Iranian-backed Shia militias in Idlib, Syria. In addition, Iran seeks to keep Türkiye busy in the north of Iraq with the PKK; Türkiye has brought the Sunni parties together after they won a substantial number of seats. Türkiye also is interested in boosting its natural gas cooperation with the Kurdish regional government. This is to say that Türkiye has a desire to reduce its energy dependence on Iran. Amidst the rivalry between Türkiye and Iran, the Turkish-Israeli relationship might develop in intelligence cooperation in the region. In fact, events first in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and then in Afghanistan in 2021 reapproached the Turkish-Israel relationship before the war in Ukraine started.
The recent activities of Israel and its allies in the region can be considered as preparation steps for a new Middle East process without superpowers. Parallel to the US’s strategy of withdrawing from the region, there has been a severe decrease in the security guarantees offered by the US to the regional countries, which has pushed them to seek new ones. This process underlies the formation of a moderate foreign policy atmosphere. Whereas the anti-Iran axis has ostensibly countered Iran, the main target of the axis was initially also Türkiye in accordance with leaked information from meetings between the relevant countries.
Since 2016, when Türkiye and Israel declared their ambassadors as persona non grata, Israel has pursued a foreign policy against Türkiye’s vital interest in the region. Israel has cooperated with Greece and the Greek Cyprus administration in the East Mediterranean, supported the attempted independence referendum of Kurds in Iraq, and ultimately cheered on the US’s confrontation against Türkiye. In 2016, Türkiye and Israel had discussed a way to import Israeli gas as part of a reconciliation deal after years of tensions resulting from Israel’s Gaza flotilla raid in 2010. However, the negotiations collapsed in 2018 over Israeli violations at Jerusalem and Gaza. We can conclude that the Turkish-Israeli relationship would not deepen unless Türkiye cut off relations with Hamas on the one hand and Israel minded Palestinians’ rights on the other hand. As in the past, the Türkiye-Israeli relationship could be limited to bilateral trade.
- Türkiye-Palestine trade is evaluated within the Türkiye-Israel trade volume.
- https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52018DC0773&from=EN , p. 5.