Israel and Turkey: Insights from a Policy Dialogue in the Midst of a Crisis

Dr. Nimrod Goren December 2018

The recent escalation in Gaza highlighted once again the crisis in Israel-Turkey relations. A harsh exchange of tweets between the spokespersons of Turkey’s President Erdoğan and Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed not only disagreements on policy but also a negative and confrontational discourse. Six months have passed since Israeli and Turkish ambassadors were sent home, following Turkish protest over Israel’s steps in Gaza, and ties have yet to improve. On this background, the Mitvim Institute recently conducted its annual Israel-Turkey Policy Dialogue in Istanbul, in cooperation with Friedrich-EbertStiftung.

Policy exchanges with a variety of unofficial Turkish counterparts emphasized that even at the height of Israel-Turkey tensions a few months ago – triggered by the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem and the escalation in Gaza – the two countries refrained from intensifying the crisis beyond a certain level. Thus, for example, despite sending the ambassadors home, they did not formally downgrade the level of relations. This fact will make it easier to solve the crisis, should there be political will to do so. It will be possible to present the return of the ambassadors as a largely technical step, not as one that heralds a new stage in relations.

But even should ambassadors’ return, Turkey is not likely to seek a significant improvement in ties due to its long-standing opposition to Israeli policies towards the Palestinian issue. In fact, the Turkish desire for increased influence on the Palestinian issue is a significant reason to seek the return of its diplomatic representatives to Israel. Without an ambassador in Tel Aviv and a consul general in Jerusalem, Turkey finds itself increasingly excluded from processes occurring in domestic Palestinian politics and from international diplomatic efforts regarding the Gaza strip.

The American angle also came up during Mitvim’s policy dialogue in Istanbul, especially in the context of the Jewish community in the US. Turks view with concern the links between Jewish organizations and Saudi and Emirati lobby groups in Washington. This is perceived as aimed at promoting a more negative American attitude towards Turkey. Turkey would be pleased if the Jewish lobby would use its influence on the Trump administration to enable more Turkish involvement in Iraq, also as a counterweight and block to Iran, which is seen in Turkey as also serving Israeli interests. Israel, from its side, is currently not inclined to make gestures towards Turkey, given Erdoğan’s policy and statements towards it. The expectation in Jerusalem is that Turkey should first enable the return of ambassadors, as it was the one who initiated the bilateral crisis.

Concerning Iran, the messages coming from Istanbul were that in contrast to common opinion in Israel, Turkey and Iran are not allies. They indeed conduct neighborly relations and trade, and cooperate on regional issues such as Syria, yet at the same time a significant rivalry exists between them. Similarly to Israel, Turkey too wants to limit the Iranian involvement in Syria, although this is of less importance for Turkey, and is not motivated by security fears but rather by hegemonic and economic concerns. Misperceptions in Israel about Turkey are mirrored by misperceptions in Turkey about Israel. For example, there is a widespread belief in Turkey that Israel secretly desires territorial expansion in the Middle East and is closely allied with the Kurds in northern Syria, which Turkey considers a serious threat.

It seems that Israel and Turkey can find a common language regarding Syria, and that they are not always on different sides of the regional divide. Initiating a strategic Israel-Turkey dialogue concerning Syria should be one of the concrete results of a future return of ambassadors. It will also be helpful to establish a coordination and conflict-management mechanism between the two countries, with the aim of preventing a further collapse of ties in the event of another round of violence in Gaza or renewed tensions in Jerusalem.

The ideological disparities between Erdoğan and Netanyahu are not likely to disappear in the near future, but the practical advantages of improved relations – mainly in the economic and strategic spheres – can lead both leaders to decrease the flames and intensity of their disagreement, as occurred in the past. Turkey and Israel are central countries in the region, which are impacted by developments in the Middle East and can benefit from a dialogue channel about them (even when they do not see eye-to-eye).

Recent progress in the efforts to stabilize the situation in Gaza creates a more favorable context for carrying out diplomatic efforts to enable the return of ambassadors. But until official ties build positive momentum again, it will be mostly up to civil society actors to maintain and broaden channels of dialogue and cooperation between the people and policy elite of both countries. Mitvim’s Israel-Turkey policy dialogue, as well as the ongoing work of the Israeli-Turkish Civil Society Forum, show that this is very much possible and valuable.

Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

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