Turkey-Israel Relations: A Troubled Marriage

Joe Hammoura

Negotiations attempting to bring relations between Turkey and Israel back to normalcy have recently picked up in tempo. On the 27th June, both countries announced that they have reached a reconciliation agreement in Rome. Among other things, the agreement reportedly stipulates for Israel to deposit some $20 million in a humanitarian fund as compensation for the families of the Turkish nationals who were killed and wounded during the raid on the Mavi Marmara[1]; to allow Turkey to carry out infrastructural projects in Gaza, including the construction of the Turkey-Palestine Friendship Hospital, the establishment of a joint Turkish-German power station and setting up a desalination facility. All the materials needed for these projects will be passed through Israel’s Ashdod Port. On its part, Turkey will have to revoke all the law suits it issued against Israeli soldiers and officers and preventing future suits from being filed. The agreement also includes normalizing the diplomatic relations between the states and returning the ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv. The breakthrough is reached after Turkey waived its bold demand for the lifting of Israeli blockade of Gaza and agreed to close the military office of Hamas and ban it from planning and directing military attacks against Israel.[2]

It is obvious that the enduring regional and international common interest that inform the geostrategic ties between the two countries is too important to be chucked. But what are those enduring common interests which have weathered hostile public opinions calling for dissociation of ties and recent ideological and diplomatic differences occasioned by domestic and international changes?

Under the constant prodding of their common ally, the United States, and compelled by the volatile reconfigurations of the political landscape in the Middle East which threatens their common regional and international interests, both Turkey and Israel have been conducting talks on on and off basis to mend their diplomatic fence after it sustained heavy losses following the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010. However, strong public opinion against compromise, I-won’t-back-down-until-you-do kind of macho personalities of both the Turkish and Israeli leaders, and the weakening of common interests that pulled both countries closer in the old good days have made it difficult to bridge the differences. The nature of the incumbent political parties in both countries with their hawkish and uncompromising swagger and a desire to project power in the face of enemies, did not help the cause of rapprochement either. In response to the Israeli refusal to issue apology for the Mavi Marmara incident and lift its blockade on Gaza, Turkish politicians spew fiery rhetoric against Israel culminating in then Prime minister Recep tayyip Erdogan dabbing Zionism crime against humanity in par with Fascism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in a speech at the United Nations conference in Vienna in February 2013[3]. On top of this, Turkey intensified its military, political and financial support to Hamas. But, the relationship between the two countries is too precious to be lost and both parties budged enough from their original positions to enable charting some sort of middle ground. After stubbornly refusing to apology for the Mavi Marmara incident for two years, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for errors that led to injury or loss of life and promised a compensation settlement. He also vowed to continue to ease restrictions on the movement of civilians and the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. Erdogan on his part expressed readiness to improve relations and underlined that Turkey cherishes its ties with Israel. In fact, despite rhetorical mud-slinging, both countries did not disrupt their multi-billion dollar worth trade exchanges. On the contrary, the volume of mutual trade showed increase and Israel continues to be one of the main exporters of Turkish goods.[4] From approximately $2.6 billion in overall bilateral trade during 2009, trade grew to $3.3 billion in 2010 and to $4.2 billion in 2011. After a drop in 2012 (to approx. $3.9 billion) the volume of bilateral trade in 2013 for the first time crossed the $5 billion dollar mark, as Turkey became one of Israel’s top 10 trading partners, and as Israel remains an important market for Turkish goods[5]. Despite some glitches following the Mavi Marmara incident, tourism also continues to be an important sector between both countries.[6]

Ideological proximity is one of the many common gluing factors between Israel and Turkey. Right from their inception, both Israel, as a new nation bursting onto the map of the Middle East, and the Turkish republic, dead bent to break away from the Ottoman legacy and chart a new secular and modernizing future, shared a common self-perception of being secular and democratic islands in the sea of religiously conservative and undemocratic Arab countries. This ideological proximity was strengthened in the context of the cold war where both countries expressed their strong pro-western stances and served as the main client states of the United States of America and NATO. Right after its formation, Turkey did not take long to become the first Muslim majority country to recognize the state of Israel[7]. Eventually, and in spite of the occasional hurdles caused by the Israeli-Arab confrontation and Turkey’s divided loyalty, the proximity between the two countries culminated into a solid military and intelligence cooperation. These military and intelligence ties were strengthened after the Turkish military took control of the government reigns in the 1980s and 1990s.

The second factor that drew both countries closer was the existence of common real or/and perceived regional enemies such as Syria, Iraq and after the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran. When Egypt and Syria established the United Arab Republic in the end of 1950s and when the pro-western Iraqi monarchy was overthrown from power, both countries felt isolated and encircled. This sense of encirclement had resulted into the creation of a loose alliance called peripheral alliance constituting Turkey, Israel, Iran and Ethiopia in the 1960s.[8] Even though, this alliance did not stay long it nevertheless laid the ground for continuous military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries which was boosted by Turkish membership in NATO.

The golden era for the Turkish and Israeli relationship dawned in the 1990s when the Turkish military started to play a pivotal role in politics. The Turkish military elite sought to capitalize on the existing military cooperation with Israel to push for thawing relations with its Western allies strained for a long time due to the Kurdish issue.[9] In addition, Turkey calculated, correctly, that good relations with Israel would position it to use the strong Jewish lobby in the United States to push for favorable legislation in Congress and prevent the persistent Armenian lobby’s call for Congress to pass a resolution naming the killing of Armenians in the First World War as genocide.

Enduring ties and common interests aside, there have been also equally enduring domestic and regional variables that have persistently bedeviled the relations between Turkey and Israel. The Palestinian question and the Arab-Israeli conflict stand out as the main torn in the flesh for both countries. At times, Turkey succumbed to the pressures of the significant negative public opinion against Israel’s disproportional response on Palestinians and the increasing power of Islamist political organizations. As a matter of fact, as a function of the contradictions of its modern identity, Turkey has always been conflicted about its relations with Israel. Despite its interest to keep closer ties with it, it concomitantly attempts to keep its distance itself from it in a bid to please the Arab countries. Turkey’s approach to Israel is best captured by what Ben Gurion has reportedly said: “Turkey treats us as its mistress. But we have already married and Turkey fails to accept it.”[10]

In the first decade of the 21 century new developments emerged in the Turkish political landscape which adversely affected the relations between the two countries. The Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the November 2002 parliamentary elections and formed government. The emergence of the AKP as indisputable power affected the Turkish-Israeli relations on two aspects. First, the ideological proclivity of the party, which mainly constitutes in the reassertion of political Islam, is incompatible to the secular ideology which initially formed the basis of proximity between the two countries. Its position vis-a-vis the Palestinian question is the classic stance taken by Islamist groups which unequivocally condemn Israel’s supposed aggression. The second more significant manner in which the rise of the AKP to power has affected the relationship negatively is the weakening of the Turkish military’s influence. The top dogs of the party have clearly understood that in order to push home the electoral advantage they secured to recast the Turkish body-politic in their own image, they need to weaken the nemesis of Islamist politics and the guardian of the republican legacy, i.e., the military elite; a weakening, they eventually achieved. Since the Turkish military was the primary driver of the relationship between Turkey and Israel, its weakening did not bode well for the long-standing relations. The simultaneous rise of the center-right Likud party to power in Israel and its harsh responses against Palestinians, its increased settlement policies and its eventual bombing and blockading of Gaza exacerbated the tension between the two countries which reached a crisis level with the Mavi Marmara incident.

The domestic, regional and international political map is so altered that there is a slim chance to return to the status quo ante as far as the relationship between the two countries is concerned. But, this troubled marriage will not end in divorce either. The debacle in Syria, the US-Iranian nuclear deal, the rise of extremism, the assertive flexing of military muscle by Russia, and vital trade and energy issues, such as the discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean sea bordering Cyprus and Israel and the multi-billion dollar worth mutual commercial transaction, will force both parties to keep the long-standing, if unhappy, union.


Joe Hammoura, “Turkey-Israel Relations: A Troubled Marriage”, MEIRSS (Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies), July 2016. Available on: http://meirss.org/turkey-israel-relations-a-troubled-marriage/

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