“Break up to make up, that’s all we do”, sang the 1970s falsetto-tastic soul group The Stylistics. They might have Israel and Turkey in mind. The lyrics certainly fit.
The two countries are currently making up. This week, after a four-year hiatus, they have agreed to restore full diplomatic relations. It was always a matter of when, not if. The tempestuous relationship means they sometimes sign – in divorce parlance – a “decree nisi”, but their interests line up on too many important regional issues for them to agree a full “decree absolute”.
Turkey and Israel withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli commandos stormed the Turkish ship “Mavi Marmara” as it attempted to break a naval blockade of Gaza. Some of the activists on board fought the troops using knives, axes and a firearm seized from a commando. Nine Turkish activists were killed, and several Israelis wounded. Turkey’s President Erdogan said this was “state terrorism”. By 2016 there were attempts at rapprochement, but they collapsed in 2018 when Israel’s response to rioting on the Gaza border left dozens of Palestinians dead. Turkey withdrew its ambassador and told Israel’s to go home.
By 2020 Turkey had the feelers out to get back together again, but Israel was cautious, worried that Ankara might quickly start throwing plates around and walk out. However, over the last two years each side quietly discussed their differences and made the sort of small gestures required to build trust, for example an updated aviation agreement was signed and earlier this year Turkey allowed Israel’s economic office in Istanbul to reopen.
A major breakthrough came in June when Turkey’s security forces arrested ten people, mostly Iranians, suspected of planning attacks on Israeli tourists and diplomats. Public gratitude from Israel followed, as did a visit from then Foreign Minister, and now Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
They need each other. Turkey has few friends and Erdogan’s foreign policy has left it isolated in the wider Middle East region. As he fell out with country after country, and leader after leader, Israel was happy to make friends with them. Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Jordan all prefer Israel to Turkey, and are working together in the EastMed Gas Forum. The Abraham Accords were signed with the UAE — a rival of Turkey – and Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain.
Facing isolation, and with an economy heading rapidly south, it was time for Turkey to return to the old policy of “zero problems with neighbours” and to kiss and make up with Israel.
It’s a good fit. Turkey needs foreign investment and support from Israel tells investors it’s worth a look. Trade between them was barely affected by the rupture in diplomatic relations but it always helps to have a good political relationship to smooth passage of goods. Turkey wants better relations with Egypt and Israel will be the conduit. Both countries have security concerns regarding Iranian activity throughout the region, and both want to coordinate in Syria where their air forces operate.
One potential loser in this renewed marriage of convenience are the Kurds. Israel’s support for some of the Kurdish armed groups will be reviewed. All this and more comes in time to bed in ahead of Turkey’s Presidential election next year which Erdogan looks as if he will struggle to win.
Strategically, Israel and Turkey have more in common than not. They have the two most powerful militaries in a region where both have enemies. If ties can be dressed up as a friendly relationship, so much the better. And anyway, how many outsiders know how close partners are in a marriage…
This marriage is likely to survive until at the very least the 2023 election and probably longer. There will be some rows. Turkey will not give up its rhetoric re Palestine, but Israel’s used to that and will try not to go to bed too angry.
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It would be a lot better if they had a really long-term stable relationship. As The Stylistics put it: “First you love me then you hate me. That’s a game for fools”.