The long-standing friendship between Turkey and Israel seemed once to offer testament to the idea that Arab-Israeli Conflict based not on religion or ethnicity, but on solvable political difference. Since 1949, when Turkey became the first Muslim nation to establish relations with Israel, the two counties have created a beneficial partnership. Yet sixty years of cooperation appear to have been obliterated in the past three short years, as relations between Ankara and Jerusalem chill by the day. Nonetheless, current tensions largely reflect shifting geopolitical forces in the region, rather than ideological divisions. The driver of Turkey and Israel’s split remains the separation between Turkey’s new stature in the Middle East and Israel’s growing isolation in the region.
The Good Old-ish Days
Beginning with the election of Justice and Development Party in 2002, Israel and Turkey enjoyed a period of unprecedented diplomatic cooperation and economic exchange. Excluding revenues from natural gas and petroleum products, Turkey’s trade agreements with Iran amounted to $2 billion in 2011, while its trade agreements with Israel amount to over $4 billion. Shimon Peres enjoyed several visits to Ankara, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to Israel, and the countries have exchanged hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
Erdogan’s reaction to the Gaza War of 2008-2009 catalyzed a break in the quasi-alliance between the two nations. In the so-called “One Minute Scandal” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Erdogan offered a series of inflammatory remarks regarding the Gaza War, and ignited a verbal sparring match between the two nations. The conflict culminated in diplomatic debacle, in which the Turkish Ambassador to Israel was asked to sit in a lower chair than his Israeli counterparts. Although Israel apologized for the insult, residual resentment lingers in Turkey. A major turning point occurred on May 30, 2010 when nine Turkish activists were killed aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Controversy over the flotilla continues to sour relations. Turkey demands a formal apology and compensation for the families of the deceased, while Israel defends the legitimacy of its actions. In September, the United Nations’ Palmer Commission released a report declaring that, although Israel used excessive force in the Mavi Marmara raid, its blockade of Gaza is legally justified. The day after the release of the Palmer Report, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended all military agreements.
The New Middle East
Despite these diplomatic disputes, the most important factors reshaping the Israel-Turkey relationship may not be these incidents, but rather the unprecedented transition in the Middle East. The revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring has shifted the balance of power in the region, causing Western influence and regional authoritarianism to fall out, and enabled the ascent of a new order of Arab states, embracing democracy and religious expression.
The effects of Arab Spring have purchased for Turkey a new role in the region. “We are there to set a model that market-economy, democracy, and local cultural values can interact in a positive way,” a Turkish diplomat told the HPR. Prime Minister Erdogan has emerged as a model for the new Arab leaders, and Turkey as the template for secular Islamic democracy. With the falls of Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Hussein, a severely weakened Assad, and diminishing American influence in the Middle East, Turkey has become the standard-bearer of sound governing in the region. While Turkey strives to maintain its traditional domestic policies, its foreign policy has become more active in taking advantage of a distinct power vacuum.
Israel in Isolation
On the other hand, Israel’s position has become weaker and more isolated as popular revolutions overturn regional allies. Dr. Charles Freilich, former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor and Kennedy School fellow, pointed out that Israelis enjoyed “a strong emotion attachment” to the alliance with Turkey, precisely because it proved Israel’s conflict was based in politics, not ideology. The sudden breakdown of relations has led many to reject this optimistic belief and “feel betrayed” by Turkey. This feeling of betrayal has led to a backlash against Arab states and pushed the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu further to the right. Uncertainty has created an impasse between the Turkish and Israeli governments, polarizing both sides further. With Turkey’s increasingly belligerent tone and Israel’s continuation of settlement construction and military operations around the Gaza Strip, prospects for reconciliation are fading at an alarming rate.
Neither does reconciliation appear on any near horizon. According to a senior Turkish official, if Turkey’s demand for an apology for the flotilla had been met, Turkey would not have expelled the Israeli Ambassador, and the nations could have normalized relations. Yet, Itamar Rabinovich, President of Tel-Aviv University and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., believes that an apology would not have made any significant diplomatic difference. Rabinovich argues that Turkey deliberately chose to distance itself from Israel in order to boost its standing in the Middle East.
The series of unfortunate events between Israel and Turkey has brought simmering tensions in regional relations to a boil. After repeated rejection from European Union membership, Turkey turned its attention back to the East, through increasing trade with its Muslim neighbors and increasing its advocacy for Palestinian statehood. Yet it would be too much to say that Turkey is shifting its axis and severing its ties with the West. Since the creation of NATO, Turkey has served as a poster child for Middle Eastern democracy, and continues to fulfill its duties as a central regional ally. Yet the Arab Spring and Turkey’s tradition of secular success means that Turkey faces a transition, from being bridge between two continents, to being a leader in its own right. This shift means that Turkey’s decisions will not be based on currying favor with any bloc, but rather focused on expanding its influence. As such, while revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia look to Turkey as a leader, Iran is threatening to cancel vital trade agreements with Turkey because of its NATO Early Detection missile defense systems and Turkey’s threat to sanction Syria.
A Turkish official told the HPR, “[Turkey wants] a stable, secure, and prosperous Middle East”. Yet neither stability nor prosperity can be achieved without collaboration between Israel and Turkey. Collaboration existed for sixty years, proving that political shifts, not enduring ideology, have caused the present rift. If these two nations wish to be leaders of a secure region, they must be prepared to compromise, with the understanding that the Arab Spring has reshaped their geopolitical calculations.
Ali Nuri Bayar ‘15 and Mikhaila Fogel ’15 are Contributing Writers