Turkey-Israel relations: a political low point and an economic high point

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolu’s decision earlier this month to decline to participate in the Munich Security Conference due to Israeli ministerial participation marks a new low in the troubled Turkish-Israeli relationship.

And yet, the latest statistics released this week by the Israeli government document an overall volume of $5.44 billion dollars in Turkish-Israeli trade during 2014. This marks an all-time high point in Turkish-Israeli economic relations, up 11.5 percent from 2013, including $2.75 billion in Israeli exports to Turkey (a 10 percent year-to-year increase) and $2.68 billion in Turkish imports to Israel (13 percent higher than 2013).

This pattern of an almost non-existent political dialogue at the senior levels accompanied by robust bilateral trade has characterized the Turkish-Israeli relationship since 2011. Short of unexpected dramatic changes, the relations between the two former allies will likely continue in this pattern for the foreseeable future. 

Almost two years after Israel’s official apology to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara incident (which I wrote about in depth here), the two countries continue to move in different directions, despite sharing similar strategic concerns on a range of regional issues – the civil war in Syria, instability in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program.

The main bone of contention between the AKP-led Turkish government and the Likud-led government in Israel remains the Palestinian issue. Turkey continues to speak out against Israeli occupation and settlement activity in the West Bank, as well as on Israeli human rights violations towards the Palestinian population. In addition, Turkey remains one of the main (very few) patrons of Hamas, providing the group with political and economic support and allowing the organization to maintain representation in Istanbul. Israel viewed with disdain Turkish attempts, together with Qatar, to facilitate a ceasefire with Hamas during the summer 2014 war. Anti-Turkish sentiments in Israeli public opinion skyrocketed in response to President Erdogan’s allegations that Israeli policies on Gaza are genocidal. 

Amidst rising tensions in the relationship, President Erdogan publicly vowed after his August 2014 election that as long as he’s in power, Turkey’s approach to Israel will not change. As a result, there are no serious expectations that any senior-level political dialogue will resume, and mutual representation is likely to remain at a junior diplomatic level (after ambassadors were withdrawn from Tel Aviv and Ankara in 2011).

The interesting aspect of the relationship continues to be the booming trade between the two countries, which despite political tensions continues to grow at a rapid pace. Clearly there is an interest on both sides to insulate the economic sphere from the political sphere. Robust trade serves both countries’ economic interests and during a very unstable period keeps the relationship afloat. Nevertheless, an Israeli – Turkish natural gas deal which was considered in the past as a likely scenario and possibly a regional and bilateral “game changer” seems at present to be “off the table.” Potential energy cooperation between Turkey and Israel around the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas discoveries may be possible only in the context of political rapprochement.