Despite Gaza Conflict, Turkey and Israel Would Benefit from Rapprochement

The recent outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas is a serious setback to ongoing Turkish-Israeli normalization efforts. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, its thirdoperation against Hamas since leaving Gaza in 2005, in response to rockets and missiles fired by Hamas from Gaza into Israel. As in Israel’s two previous Gaza campaigns, Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) and Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), Turkey quickly condemned Israel’s actions, yet offered to mediate, together with Qatar, between Israel and Hamas.

After Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the midst of his presidential campaign, equated Israeli policy towards Gaza to a “systematic genocide” and accused Israel of surpassing “Hitler in barbarism,” Israel accepted an Egyptian cease-fire proposal. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Turkey and Qatar of “sabotaging the cease-fire proposal,” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about Erdogan’s statements.

Turkish leaders’ harsh rhetoric sparked violent demonstrations in front of Israel’s embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul, lead the Israeli government to evacuate diplomats’ families, and issue a travel warning advising against travel to Turkey, which prompted numerous cancellations of tourist travel. On Sunday, Netanyahu refrained from declaring Turkish-Israeli reconciliation dead, but accused Erdogan of anti-Semitism more aligned with Tehran then the West.

These heightened Israeli-Turkish tensions come just as the two countries were negotiating a compensation deal for families of victims of the May 31, 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. The deal was intended to facilitate a long-awaited normalization between the two countries, more than a year after Israel’s official apology. The draft stipulated an estimated $21 million in Israeli compensation, the reinstatement of each country’s ambassador, and the reestablishment of a senior-level bilateral dialogue. However, a series of issues has prevented the deal’s finalization, including: Turkish domestic political considerations about the timing (related to March 2014 municipal elections and August 2014 presidential elections) and Israeli demands for Turkish commitments to block future lawsuits related to the Marmara incident.

With the ongoing Gaza conflict, prospects for normalization have again faded at least in the short term, and policymakers on both sides seem to have accepted a limited relationship. Erdogan even declared publicly that as long as he’s in power, there is no chance “to have any positive engagement with Israel”, dismissing any prospect for normalization. Israeli-Turkish animosity runs deep, not only among leaders, but at the grassroots level as well. While it may be difficult to look beyond the short term, a focus on the broader regional picture suggests four reasons why the two countries would benefit from restoring ties.

  • First, they share strategic interests. Turkey and Israel see eye to eye on many issues: preventing a nuclear Iran; concerns over spillover from the Syrian civil war; and finally, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) and security and stability in Iraq. A resumed dialogue and renewed intelligence sharing can pave the way for more concrete cooperation between Turkey and Israel on all these regional issues, with development of a joint approach toward Syria topping the agenda.
  • Second, regional environment may be beyond their control, the bilateral relationship is not. Normalization can eliminate one factor of instability in an unstable region.
  • Third, Washington sees greater cooperation and cohesiveness in the U.S.-Turkey-Israel triangle as essential. President Obama has sought to restore a dialogue between Ankara and Jerusalem, including efforts to “extract” an Israeli apology and Turkish acceptance. Senior U.S. officials remain active in trying to improve the Turkish-Israeli relationship.
  • Fourth, normalization may convey benefits in the economic sphere, with possible cooperation on natural gas, tourism, and enhanced trade. Gas in particular is viewed as a possible game-changer. In 2013, bilateral trade first crossed the $5 billion mark, and data from the first six months of 2014 indicates a continued rise. A political thaw can help accelerate these joint business opportunities. 

Nevertheless, at this stage it is clear that serious U.S. involvement is required for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement to succeed, even in a limited fashion. At present, there are far greater challenges for U.S. foreign policy in the region. The question now is whether the relationship between two of America’s closest regional allies reflects a new “normal,” or whether the leaders of both countries – and the U.S. – can also muster the political will to reconnect the US-Turkey-Israel triangle along more productive lines.

Check back to for Dan Arbell’s upcoming analysis paper: The U.S.-Turkey-Israel Triangle.