Wed, Feb 10, 2021

The Biden administration can help mend ties between Turkey and Israel

MENASource by Gabriel Mitchell

Israel Middle East Turkey

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) attends a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Washington March 31, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Following President Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, there have been a flurry of reports that Turkey is courting Israel in the hopes of resolving their diplomatic dispute. Turkey’s timing is understandable. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is concerned that the Biden administration will adopt a critical position towards Ankara’s regional activities. Perhaps breaking bread with Israel would demonstrate Turkey’s commitment to turning over a new leaf? Israel is prepared to listen, but is not going to sacrifice its new partnerships for the sake of rekindling an old, problematic flame. After enduring a decade of Erdogan’s erratic and often antagonistic behavior, it will take more than gestures to bring these two erstwhile allies back together.

Strong Israel-Turkey relations make sense. Historically, both countries have been important partners in the Western alliance. Turkey is an original NATO member and Israel’s special relationship with the US and European Union goes back decades. In the heyday of Israel-Turkey ties, joint military exercises and intelligence cooperation were commonplace. Israel and Turkey also have complementary economies and continue to enjoy upwards of $6 billion in bilateral trade. Turkey operates as a conduit for oil from Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Regional Government to reach the Israeli market. Throughout the Syrian civil war, Israel has functioned as a land bridge for Turkish “roll on roll off” trucks delivering goods to Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula. Israeli and Turkish democracy may have witnessed better days, but the roots have not been completely uprooted.

Despite their obvious compatibility, Israel and Turkey have drifted further apart in the past decade than at any other point in their history. This is due to several factors, including the cycle of violence in the Gaza Strip and Turkey’s adoption of a hostile position towards Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.

On the surface, this was not a radical departure from the past; while holding the distinction of being the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel, bilateral relations often reflected the peaks and valleys of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Turkish governments often expressed their disapproval of Israel’s policies by downgrading diplomatic ties.

However, Erdogan’s embrace of the militant group Hamas—along with other Muslim Brotherhood affiliates—proved to be a step too far. It is a decision that has haunted Turkey’s regional foreign policy, undermining its ability to be a constructive actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as other disputes.

Still, the transition between US administrations is often a period of strategic realignment. Look no further than Qatar—arguably Turkey’s sole remaining partner in the Middle East, who managed to harness the positive energy of Israel’s normalization with the Gulf States in order to restore ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council. If that dispute—which included an embargo and painful economic sacrifices—could be resolved, then why can’t Israel and Turkey find common ground? Their shared opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and presence in Syria remain compelling strategic reasons to let bygones be bygones.

Erdogan understands that Turkey must evolve in response to the changing international conditions. His statement on December 25, 2020—“our heart desires that we move our relations with [Israel] to a better point”—was a deliberate effort to shake things up. Turkey has reportedly made similar overtures to Athens, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Brussels.

The bigger question is whether Israel is interested. Unlike the seemingly boundless potential of normalization with the Arab world, Turkey is a familiar space with clear limitations. Most investment opportunities have already been explored and global market conditions have dampened enthusiasm about potential natural gas cooperation (although renewables could be a worthwhile pursuit).

Over the past decade, Israel recreated its lost regional ally in the aggregate by strengthening ties with Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt and pursuing the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. Normalization with the UAE and Bahrain was not about replacing Turkey, but, like so many of Israel’s new partners, they distrust Erdogan and his regional ambitions.

Further complicating the situation is Israel’s domestic landscape. Polls indicate that the majority of Israelis approve of future normalization with Turkey, but Erdogan is persona non grata. Embroiled in the fourth election in two years, beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to approve such a consequential decision during the campaign for fear of giving his opponents on the left and right an opportunity to score easy points. Besides, Israel probably enjoys the rare opportunity to make Turkey wait for an answer.

Israel has indicated several measures that would demonstrate Turkey’s earnestness, but its demand that Ankara cease its support for Hamas is what stands above the rest. While Israel has no qualms with Qatar funding Hamas, the group’s rumored cyberwarfare and counter-intelligence operations in Istanbul are a thorn in bilateral relations (Turkish officials refute these allegations). If Turkey acquiesces to Israel’s request—it has demonstrated a willingness to do so in the past—it would indicate how far Erdogan is willing to go in order to reset ties with Israel, and the West.

If Israel and Turkey are committed to resolving their differences, it would be a welcome development for the Biden administration. President Biden is well acquainted with the two parties and the strategic consequences of their fallout. Erdogan’s infamous Davos outburst occurred just days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and it required efforts over the course of almost two terms to mend those fences. Thus far, the only Turkish request is that Israel freeze West Bank settlement construction. This is something the Biden administration will likely request anyway, so it is in a good position to give the two sides a nudge.

The Israel-Turkey relationship no longer carries the same luster it once did and reconciliation is unlikely to solve Turkey’s troubles in Washington. Even if diplomatic ties were restored, it would only mark the first step in a longer process. The two sides need to reintroduce themselves, expand their communication channels, and create openings for dialogue between new elites. As simple as it is to exchange ambassadors, the journey forward is an arduous one and it is unclear whether either party is committed to making that investment. But, with the Biden administration’s encouragement, it could serve as a model for the route Ankara must take to rehabilitate its tarnished image in Europe and the United States. It would also provide the US the relative comfort of knowing that disputes between its regional partners won’t distract Washington as it pursues bigger, more pressing agendas.

Gabriel Mitchell is the director of external relations at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim) and a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech University.