Advancing Israel-Turkey relations, new regional cooperation

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

Israel-Turkey relations knew numerous ups and downs during the 20 years of Erdogan in power. As the Turkish president enters his new term in office, these relations are on a somewhat upward trend. Under the leadership of Israel’s previous Bennett-Lapid government, full diplomatic ties have been restored, the normalization process has been completed and bilateral cooperation has expanded. This trend has continued even after the establishment of Israel’s most right-wing government (December 2022), tensions around holy places in Jerusalem during Ramadan (March-April 2023), a round of warfare in Gaza (May 2023) and a tight electoral race in Turkey (May 2023).

In previous instances, similar developments have led to harsh rhetoric and criticism of Israel by Erdogan, and to a de facto downgrade of ties but this time – things kept on moving forward, albeit at a slower pace than under Israel’s previous government.

Maintaining this will be a key objective of both countries in the coming months. But, their goal should be to look beyond a more-of-the-same approach, and seek new advances by involving new societal sectors, setting up cooperative endeavors in new fields, and leveraging positive geopolitical developments. This, while acknowledging that relations between the states are not limited to those between heads-of-state and governments. There is also much space for others in Israel and Turkey, who share different sets of values than their leaders, to find common ground and work together.

First and foremost, Israel and Turkey should increase the scope of their bilateral ministerial meetings, which have not taken place often during the last six months. Beyond meetings and photo-ops, it will be crucial to ensure that sustained working relations are set between the professional levels at relevant ministries – especially those dealing with foreign affairs, energy, economy, environment and defense.

Climate change is important to Israel, but less for Turkey

Of special importance is the issue of climate change, which is central in Israel’s regional ties, but around which only limited cooperation with Turkey exists. It is an issue that is of utmost importance to President Isaac Herzog, who set up the Israeli Climate Forum and who is advocating an inclusive regional approach toward a “Renewable Middle East.” The trust established between Herzog and Erdogan in recent years should be utilized to ensure the sustainability of Israel-Turkey ties, even should political conditions create renewed tensions, and climate change is an agenda item through which this could be done.

Relations could also be improved in terms of parliamentary cooperation – whether through direct engagement between the speakers of parliament (as has recently happened between Israel and Morocco), through the exchange of parliamentary delegations, or via cooperation between sister parties (including via multilateral groupings such as the Socialist International). The fact that Turkey’s former ambassador to Israel Namik Tan has recently been voted into parliament, can give a boost to parliamentary cooperation.

WHILE THE Israeli and Turkish political leaderships, diplomatic echelons and private sectors are already cooperating rather well, an emphasis should be put on enhancing civil society cooperation, which is still lagging. The Turkish-Israeli Civil Society Forum, which managed to create and maintain NGO ties during the years of bilateral political crisis, can be a central pillar of this. It should now be empowered as a focal point for non-governmental cooperation. A specific emphasis should be placed on academic cooperation, enhancing exchange of students and faculty – whether through relevant EU programs (such as Erasmus+), bilateral agreements between universities, and governmental investment (such as was done in the past with the Süleyman Demirel Program for Contemporary Turkish Studies at Tel Aviv University).

On the domestic fronts, as pro-democrats in both Turkey and Israel are stepping up their efforts to safeguard their democracy, there is much room for bilateral exchanges between them, on best practices and lessons learned. This type of cooperation has increased in recent months, with Turkish and Israel experts sharing insights and recommendations with audiences in each other’s countries.

It may grow in importance in the coming months, as municipal elections in both countries approach (October 2023 in Israel, and March 2024 in Turkey). They are seen as significant political tests for those committed to liberal democracy and can create a new space for exchange of expertise and new collaborations between pro-democracy candidates and mayors.

Developments in the region and their importance

Regional developments are also creating new opportunities for innovative Israel-Turkey cooperation. Turkey is stepping up its rapprochement with Arab countries with which Israel already has good relations. Just after the Turkish election, further progress was evident in Egypt-Turkey rapprochement as well as in UAE-Turkey ties.

As these relations continue to improve, new tripartite and minilateral modalities of cooperation – also involving Israel – could be envisioned, on issues such as energy, water, security, climate change, conflict resolution, and improving the situation in Gaza. This can also enable more inclusivity in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the convening of a regional conference (an idea promoted by the EU, but which has not yet happened also due to Egypt-Turkey tensions) and Turkish involvement (even if short of membership) in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.

Turkey and Israel relations should also focus on improving Israeli-Palestinian ties and advancing peacebuilding. The issues of Gaza and Jerusalem caused tensions between the countries in the past, and this can happen again – especially if the extremist nature of Israel’s current government leads to another flare-up.

In the absence of dramatic escalation, Turkey and Israel should aim – as part of their strategic dialogue – to identify concrete contributions that Turkey can make to improve the situation. This can include the establishment by Turkey and other international actors a dialogue house on the seamline in Jerusalem, which will enable pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians a safe and convenient space to convene and advance joint civil society endeavors. Turkey is relevant to this as it has already set up a cultural center in Jerusalem, and can also share lessons learned from the Home of Cooperation established in the buffer zone in Cyprus to improve ties between the Turkish and Greek communities there.

Turkey-Israel relations might face renewed challenges in the near future given the deep ideological differences between their leaderships on the Palestinian issue. In the meantime, both countries can benefit from advancing shared bilateral and regional interests, that will broaden Israel-Turkey ties and assist in preventing another crisis if and when political tensions increase. In parallel, Israelis and Turks who hold beliefs and ideologies that differ from their leaders, should utilize the improved official ties to step up their value-based cooperation, and enhance bilateral and international liberal partnerships

The article was published on “The Jerusalem Post“, on June 18th.

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