Studies

TURKISH-ISRAELI RELATIONS

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The ups and downs can be considered as a part of the nature of the relations between Turkey and Israel. In this text, relations between Turkey and Israel will be given in four main parts that have been separated according to periods. The first part has focused on the time from the Israeli declaration of independence to 2000; the second part takes from 2000 till when tensions reached the peak in Davos in 2009, the latter part will be about the period between 2009 and 2018. Finally, the last part will talk about contemporary issues starting from 2018 till the current (2021).

The Relations between 1948 and 2000:

Before the declaration of independence of Israel, in 1947, Turkey objected to the United Nations partition plan for Palestine however during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Turkey opted to stay neutral, and they did prevent Turkish citizens from being a participant in the war. Afterwards, the Israeli state was born in 1948 in Palestine; as an outcome of the ideology of Zionism, the new state has identified itself as “a homeland for Jewish people”. Basically, Zionism is a political movement that aims to return the Jewish people to their homeland with freedom, independence, statehood, and security. The Turkish state has been the first Muslim state who recognized the newborn Israeli state. Although Turkey’s recognition of the Israeli state was relatively quick, its relations were not that close in the first years. Although there were several reasons behind that, two of those were primary reasons. Firstly, the Arabs’ stance toward the Israeli state was not allowing Turkey to act freely. Turkish foreign policy did not change until Arabs became more moderate towards Israel. As a second reason, Turkey’s suspicion of Israeli support for the Soviet Union was a factor for Turkey’s distance from Israel since the Turkish state’s foreign policy orientation was Westward during these years.  The effect of the development of American-Israeli relations in the future periods was seen in Turkey-Israel relations.

At the beginning of the 1950s, there were attempts to promote relations. To illustrate that, Adnan Menderes, the prime minister of Turkey, made a call to Arab states to recognize the Israeli state. Bilateral relations improved considerably in the second half of the 1950s. In order to reduce the rising Arab nationalism and Soviet influence, a secret agreement, which envisaged the sharing of intelligence, and trade agreement was made between the two countries. However, Turkey went far away from the USA’s Middle East policy and reformed its position towards Palestinians after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and this  became one of the main turning points of the dual relations. Followingly, Turkey showed a stand against Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israel war by wanting the US not to use its military bases in support of Israel. Another development that has directed Turkey to have closer relations with Arabs was the oil crisis of 1973. During these years, Turkey took a side with the Palestinians and even recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1975. In the same year Turkey voted in the favour of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 which determined that Zionism is a form of racism. Israeli Knesset adopted the Jerusalem Law in July 1980 hence Turkey reduced its diplomatic relations with Israel to the level of junior chargés d’affaires in November 1980. While it was expected that relations would get warmer in 1986 with the appointment of a senior diplomat with ambassadorial rank, with the start of the intifada in 1987, Turkey took the side of Palestinians and relations between Israel and Turkey stagnated. In that time period, the effects of the Cold War were also visible in the relations of these two countries. Since, Turkey tried to establish its foreign policy according to the bipolar structure during the Cold War period.

During the 1990s, the relationship between Israel and Turkey rapidly deepened by taking advantage of the post-Cold War environment and regional developments, including the Madrid Peace Conference, the First Gulf War and the Oslo Process. These are some important developments in that era: in 1991, diplomatic relations were upgraded with both PLO and Israel. The year 1994 was important in terms of being the starting point of military cooperation with the Israeli state. In the same year, Prime Minister of Turkey, Tansu Çiller, visited Israel. She had signed some agreements during her travel. From 1996 to 1998, Turkey and Israel further consolidated their strategic partnership by signing significant bilateral agreements in different fields such as economy, trade, technology, and science. Additionally, Turkey opened up its airspace to Israeli fighter pilots for training exercises and started to receive hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists each year, averaging around 235,000 Israelis per year between 1996 and 2000.

The Period between 2000 and 2009:

In the early 2000s, there were incidents that caused an increase in negative views in Turkish public opinion about the USA and its ally Israel. Following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the second intifada started in late 2000. Two years later, in April 2002, the Israel Defense Forces entered the Jenin refugee camp and killed many Palestinians. The Jenin massacre is one of the causes of this negative opinion, especially when the USA president called Ariel Sharon, the head of the massacre, as “a man of peace”, provoked people. In addition to negative public opinion, Turkish politicians made negative statements about Israel. Ecevit had declared that Israel commits genocide against Palestinians, and Arınç, one of the top officials of JDP, had emphasized a resemblance with Hitler and Sharon. When the JDP came to power, it continued to make similar statements about the Israeli state. In addition to the massacres in Palestine, other factors arose that increased the anger of the Turkish people towards the state of Israel. The Iraq War of 2003, the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in 2004 were crucial events among those. The Prime Minister of Turkey had made a statement about the assassination of Ahmed Yassin, evaluated it as “intolerable” and he emphasized the Turkish mass’s feelings by saying that “this wounds my people and me deeply”. Despite all these, Turkey maintained its security relations with Israel. The Israeli Defense Minister had interpreted Turkey’s stance on Israeli policies as a result of the Turkish public’s criticism of Israel. Moreover, he did not evaluate the Turkish state’s manner as an ultimate obstacle for defence and commercial ties between these two countries.

Both Netanyahu and Erdogan did not hesitate to act pragmatically in bilateral relations. Because bilateral relations helped both countries to achieve gains in different fields. In addition to that, JDP differed from the former Turkish governments, which was that it had been a volunteer to take a role as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Turkey’s effort has led Turkey to have some expectations from the state of Israel. As a crucial step, Prime Minister Erdoğan visited Israel in 2005. Turkey has been disappointed when Israel attacked Gaza in 2008 because the Israeli state did not keep its promise that they would follow a peaceful path.

The Relations between 2009 and 2018

Turkish dissatisfaction with Israeli policies had achieved its peak in the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos. Hence, Davos had been a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations. Erdoğan had made a statement accusing the Israeli state of knowing very well how to kill, and he left the meeting. This was followed by the tension created by a Turkish TV series that allegedly damaged Israel’s image, and a diplomatic crisis caused by placing the Turkish ambassador in a lower-level sofa.

 However, the real crisis had occurred when there had been an attack against the Turkish ship in international waters by Israeli forces. Turkish civilians were injured, and even 10  people lost their lives. This event had created enormous criticism in the Turkish mass, and officials reacted to that attack. Erdoğan’s statements clearly showed his anger, and he evaluated this attack as another indicator of how Israelis are good at killing people. Israeli officials had referred to killed people on the flotilla as “terrorists”. On the other hand, the Turkish public was sharing the sadness of martyrs. 

The crises between these two states had followed each other, there was tension between them. Although they had a diplomatic freeze between 2010 and 2016, bilateral trade between them had increased contemporaneously. In 2011, just one year after the flotilla attack, the economy of these two countries had overgrown. This shows that Israel and Turkey successfully separated their economy and politics from each other such that trade has expanded 26% in 2011 compared to 2010. Besides that, Turkey has reiterated its demand on Israel to lift the blockade in Gaza Strip. Although the citizens did not always share the same mentality with their leaders, the economy and politics were kept separated by the leaders. 

Turkish planes have been sent to Northern Israel to help stop forest fires in 2010 and Israel had offered help for the earthquake in Eastern Turkey in 2011. The USA had played an essential role during this normalization process between Israel and Turkey. Turkey had three conditions to accept normalization with Israel: a formal apology about the attack, financial compensation for victims, and ending the siege on the Gaza Strip. The last one of them had become a topic of long discussions.

Finally, in 2013, Netanyahu apologized to Turkey about the flotilla attack. In other words, Israel had realized the first demand of Turkey, paid compensation to families, and also eased the siege of Gaza. Although it was thought that the apology of Netanyahu would be highly effective in the normalization of relations, it did not come true. The fact that normalization was linked to local and regional conditions explained that the situation was more complex than an apology. Moreover, as a country that supports the rise of Islam in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, Turkey considered being close to Israel as embarrassing.

 In 2016, a reconciliation agreement was announced by Israel and Turkey. The process has had a beneficial effect on the economic relations between these countries importantly, and trade has been on the rise. Relations have improved during the year in many fields such as tourism, the Minister of Tourism of Turkey visited Israel in 2017. In addition to that, in the same year, a delegation from the Turkish Energy Ministry visited Israel to have a comprehensive discussion about the possibility of a gas pipeline to Europe via Turkey. Shortly, there were essential cooperation agreements and attempts in a variety of fields between Israel and Turkey.

Nevertheless, the image in the media between these two countries was contradicting the facts and numbers related to their economic relations. Both parties’ statements about each other include hostility and humiliation. While Erdoğan was blaming Israel as a “terror state” and Netanyahu as a “terrorist”. Netanyahu responded to Erdoğan as “I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran get around international sanctions.” Apart from the mutual bickering of the leaders, successful economic relations not only continued, but the ties were also strengthened. To examine the reasons behind these antipodal  relations, one can look at the political parties of both states that were in power during the years of economic expansion. Israel’s Likud and Turkey’s AKP have liberal values in their approach to the economy, that is, both attach great importance to the economy. So much so that the AKP adopts an ideology-free approach in its economic policies, and Erdoğan himself uses the phrase “money has no nationality” on this issue.

The dual relations had been affected negatively during the Great March of Return since Israel has used power on Palestinians who have attended that march. Turkish Ambassador to Tel Aviv was called to the centre for consultations by the Turkish Ministry on 15 May 2018. Turkey-Israel relations are conducted by the temporary charge d’affaires in the embassy since the date in question.

Current Developments in the Relations:

Turkey and Israel are countries that have benefits out of the dual relationships. These two countries, located in the same region, have common aspects on different issues such as seeing Assad and the growth of Shiite militia as national threats. There are cooperations between them in many fields such as energy, security and trade. Their intelligence agencies did not stop working together despite dense political crises that occurred in the dual relationships. On the other hand, the main topic that causes differentiation and problems between these two countries is the Palestinian reality. Erdoğan mentioned that as follows: “the obstacle was Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians”. 

Although Turkey is a vital component of Israeli national security by becoming a NATO ally and having one of the most powerful armies in the Middle East, it is no longer the only choice of Israel in the region. Since Israel has strengthened its position in the area by new agreements such as Abraham Accords in 2020. The Israeli side expected Turkey to downplay the identity-based political perspective and to make some changes in its policy towards Israel and the Palestinian issue for a possible reconciliation. Israel demanded from Ankara to stop its support for Hamas for a rapprochement. “In August 2020, Israel objected to Turkey giving passports to members of Hamas in Istanbul, which it described as ’a very unfriendly step’. In January 2021, Israel declared that relations could not be improved unless Turkey expels members of Hamas now living in the country and using it as a base for directing terrorist activities in Gaza and the West Bank, and transferring funds to Hamas.”After the change of leadership in the USA, a very important development occurred in relations: Netanyahu, who had been the Prime Minister for the last 12 years, was unable to form a coalition. After the election repeated for the 4th time within two years, the new Israeli government was formed by 8 parties, received a vote of confidence on 13 June 2021 and took the oath. Thus, one of the long-standing actors in Israeli-Turkish relations has changed. In terms of bilateral relations, the well-known Netanyahu-Erdogan conflict came to an end. Additionally, a presidential change took place in Israel. Erdoğan and the new President Herzog had a telephone conversation, the highest level meeting between two countries in many years. Erdoğan celebrated Herzog on his inauguration, and the phone call continued for about forty minutes. In the phone conversation, the importance of bilateral relations, great cooperation potentials in many field especially in energy, tourism and technology were mentioned. This conversation between leaders who agreed on the continuation of communication and dialogue, can be regarded as a landmark of positive developments in the relationship in the coming days.

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Anadolu Center For Near East Studies

Anadolu Center For Near East Studies

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