Is the Turkish-Israeli Rapprochement for Real?

Dec 16, 2013 | Updated Feb 15, 2014

Since assuming power in 2002, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to position Turkey as a leading Middle Eastern power, prompting some analysts to allege 'neo-Ottoman' ambitions. The 'Turkish model' of modernism and moderation has been hailed across the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) as a model to be emulated, and was enhanced by the Arab Awakening. Prior to the AKP assuming power, Ankara and Jerusalem had a unique military alliance, based on their shared security interests. However, since 2008, Ankara has regularly spouted anti-Israel rhetoric -- which contributed to the AKP's 'street cred' across the Arab world -- while at the same time continuing some aspects of its military cooperation with Jerusalem.

The two states' shared economic and security interests have created an unusual dynamic that permits both to extend an open hand, as well as a clenched fist. While that bilateral relationship was severely strained -- and even at times hostile -- as a result of the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, it has recommenced following Israel's apology earlier this year for the Turkish loss of life. Yet Turkey has moved at a snail's pace on the path to restoring full diplomatic relations, raising question about Ankara's sincerity about normalizing diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.

Turkey established three conditions for full restoration of diplomatic relations following the incident: 1) An apology for the killing of nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara, 2) Financial compensation and 3) An easing of the blockade on Gaza (which Ankara later removed from the list). Ankara currently demands that Israel acknowledge that it committed a "wrongful act," while Jerusalem claims that the necessary apology has already been issued. This impasse has prevented Ankara and Jerusalem from negotiating on the financial compensation owed by Israel's government. Given that the AKP receives significant support from its Islamist voting base, which is anti-Israeli, domestic political pressures are having a significant impact on Ankara's response - particularly given Turkey's pending elections next year.

Inflammatory and offensive rhetoric has continued since March of this year. In June, Deputy Prime Minister Atalay tried to establish a link between the Gezi Park protests with the "Jewish Diaspora." Two months later, the Prime Minister accused Israel of backing the ouster of former Egyptian President Morsi. In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman compared Erdogan to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Tensions worsened in October when Washington Post columnist David Ignatius claimed that, according to "knowledgeable sources," Ankara made disclosures to Tehran about ten Iranians meeting with the Mossad in Turkey. While Turkish authorities denied this, the story created a storm in Israel's media, with many pundits accusing Ankara of "betrayal."

The interim nuclear deal that the U.S. and Iran reached last month in Geneva constitutes another source of tension between Ankara and Jerusalem. Whereas Turkey views the election of Iran's new President and the interim U.S.-Iran agreement as hopeful signs for regional stability, Israel is aligned with Saudi Arabia in opposition to easing U.S.-led economic sanctions.

When Turkey decided to host an early warning radar station in Malatya as part of NATO's missile defense system in 2012, Turkish-Iranian relations grew increasingly tense. However, Ankara's recent overtures to Tehran and Baghdad imply that Turkey seeks to 'reset' its foreign policy away from the perceived "Sunnification" that followed the AKP's deepening of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. By investing in better relations with Iran and Iraq, Turkey is attempting to undo its reputation as a sectarian actor in the Middle East. Israel and the U.S. clearly do not welcome this news, as they desire Turkey to remain aligned with the West, while at increasing odds with Tehran. This 'reset' also appears related to the re-cooling of relations between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Despite the political drama, the Syrian crisis has prompted the Turks to become increasingly reliant on Israel's ports for trade with Jordan and other Arab states, and bilateral trade between Ankara and Jerusalem is strong, at approximately $4 billion. Since 2010, some elements of the two countries' military partnership have been quietly maintained, as the Israeli Air Force used Turkish airspace. The AKP, therefore, seems content to continue its contradictory position on Israel.

Ultimately, energy interests may trump political tensions. Israel is soon expected to become a natural gas exporter and major Mediterranean energy power. Turkey, which is the world's 17th largest economy, is dependent on energy imports, and seeks to become a regional energy broker, serving as a hub between the Caspian Sea, the European Union, the MENA region and the former Soviet Union. Within this context, Turkish energy firms will pressure Ankara to ease tensions with Jerusalem and prioritize Turkey's interest in Israeli natural gas.

The construction of an ambitious pipeline connecting the undeveloped Leviathan field (with an estimated 17 trillion cubic feet of natural gas) to Turkey would be transformational. A Turkish-Israeli energy partnership could impact the balance of power in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Erdogan stressed that Turkey cannot deepen such energy ties with Israel until compensation is paid for the Turks slain in 2010. But a different tune is being sung by Turkey's Energy Minister Yildiz, who stated last month that "Turkey is interested in Israeli gas." Perhaps after next year's elections, economics will drive politics between the two countries.

The elephant in the room is Syria. Despite Ankara and Jerusalem's conflicting interests in Syria, both value the other's perspective, and sharing intelligence remains a priority. The prospect of al-Qaeda affiliate groups consolidating more power in Syria is unsettling for both the Turkish and Israeli governments. Turkey is interested in playing an influential role in Syria's future and Erdogan realizes that this objective can only be achieved if Ankara has a functional relationship with all relevant actors in the region.

Foreign Minister Davutoglu's statement last month that "the Turkish government has never cooperated with Israel against any Muslim country, and it never will" was made in response to allegations that Ankara partnered with Jerusalem in an Israeli military strike against Syria on October 31, 2013. Such language highlights the limitations of Turkey's interest in restoring full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Erdogan and the AKP know where their bread is buttered, and anti-Israeli rhetoric will always play well to the home crowd.

That said, when Israeli Minister of Environmental Affairs Peretz came to Turkey earlier this month, marking the highest ranking Israeli official to step on Turkish soil since 2010, it was made clear that a thaw is indeed emerging. At the end of the day, Ankara knows that its long term interests are much better suited continuing to be aligned with NATO and Israel. No amount of rhetoric will change this, so Erdogan will continue to play both sides of the fence as long as he can. Assuming that Israel desires a continuation of the status quo, we should expect an open hand and clenched fist to define the relationship for some time to come.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington.

Reprinted with permission from International Policy Digest.