Israel-Turkey marriage of interests depends on stability

When Israeli soldiers in 2010 stormed civilian boats in an attempt to break a humanitarian blockade of Gaza, Turkey’s president was their most vocal critic. A life-long advocate of the Palestinian cause, Recep Tayyip Erdogan also withdrew the Turkish ambassador from Israel in 2018 following America’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital.

The two countries have had frosty relations since then — a far cry from the relatively close relationship they enjoyed during the Cold War, when both were firmly within the American regional sphere of influence. In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel. Last week’s visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Turkey marked a change as both parties chose to draw attention to their mutual interests and the necessity of their willingness to now cooperate.

Not since the late Shimon Peres addressed the Turkish parliament in 2007 had a visit such as that by Herzog taken place. Couched by Erdogan in terms such as “historic” and “a turning point,”

Ankara spared no expense in hosting Herzog, keen to show itself as the Holy Land’s former imperial power.

In snowy Ankara, the Israeli president was received with a military guard of honor at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For a trip that was not admitted to until very recently, the importance of the occasion was not lost on the Israelis, who, following the diplomatic coup of the Abraham Accords, have felt concerned regarding unresolved tensions with one-time allies like Turkey.

Keen to isolate Iran regionally, the visit was an opportunity to mend ties through offering opportunities to Ankara, while limiting the opportunities for Israel’s regional security hegemony to be undermined.

Surrounding the steps toward a rapprochement with Israel is the wider Turkish regional charm offensive. Groaning with economic troubles, Ankara has been trying to end its perceived isolation by improving strained ties with several countries in the region, including Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Late last year, it mended fences with Abu Dhabi, winning a pledge of $10 billion of investment in the energy sector. It has also been working to demarcate maritime territory with Egypt as the exploitation of the Eastern Mediterranean’s newfound hydrocarbon deposits has been delayed by political differences. The visit of Herzog similarly married the political with the economic, as the two sides announced that they are seeking a 17 percent increase in bilateral trade to $10 billion this year.

Turkey’s strained relations with Egypt and Israel have seen Greece and Cyprus’ stars rise as the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, to which Turkey is not a party, has grown in importance. There is no doubt that the Turkish olive branch to Israel is intended to dislodge these Greek interests, but any hope that Tel Aviv might reciprocate has, at least publicly, been refuted by an Israeli government source, who in January said: “Improvements in Jerusalem-Ankara relations will not come at the expense of Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus.”

Ankara has been trying to end its perceived isolation by improving strained ties with several countries in the region.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Nevertheless, following the Biden administration’s withdrawal of its support for an envisioned Israel-Cyprus-Greece pipeline last month and renewed fears of compromised gas supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is now greater scope for cooperation. The possibility of building an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline to bring Israeli natural gas to Turkey and then to Europe is an urgent priority for Ankara, which has been crippled by power shortages and skyrocketing energy bills. Faced with the very real possibility of a big tent opposition bloc threatening to unseat Erdogan in next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, the government is desperate for a solution to the country’s cost of living crisis as it aims to win over a forlorn electorate.

Over dinner with Herzog, Erdogan said he raised “the Palestine issue” and “the improvement in the social and political status of Palestinians.” Despite the outward friendliness of the state visit, the Palestinian question remains the most prominent cause for differences of opinion between the two countries.

Turkey has maintained ties with Hamas Islamists who have controlled Gaza since 2007. Taking issue with Israeli attempts to coerce them to cease their activity from Turkey, Ankara has offered the group’s leaders sanctuary and citizenship. However, having unsuccessfully sought to undermine the Abraham Accords, Turkey now seems to be more concerned with sharing interests with Israel rather than differences.

Aside from currying favor with Washington, improved relations with Israel will rebuild Turkey’s tarnished status as an investment destination. The unprecedented exodus of Western capital from Turkey brought home the perils of unpredictable economic policies to the country’s leaders, who are keen to show they have the situation under control.

Ahead of the trip, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett underlined the importance of “stability” in regards to his country’s foreign policy. The apparent lack of predictability from Ankara will continue to affect its political and economic fortunes.

The previous plan to build an underwater pipeline to see Israeli natural gas transported to Europe was to bypass Turkey despite the favorable rights it offered Israel because the latter preferred the reliability it had found in its Greek and Cypriot interlocutors. Aside from Turkey’s efforts to mend bridges with regional countries, the most valuable exercise it can engage in is to embark on transparent and clear plans that will reassure allies and investors alike.

• Zaid M. Belbagi 

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