Is Israel ready to normalise relations with Turkey?

Turkey has made it clear that it is interested in mending its relationship with Israel, but that sentiment might not be shared in Tel Aviv.

Following weeks of hints from Ankara that it was serious about improving ties, Israeli officials remained mum in public about the prospects.

This changed when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced he would like to see the relationship fixed, prompting Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to convene a cabinet meeting on whether to follow up on this, according to anonymous Israeli officials speaking to Axios.

This was, in some ways, the closest glimpse into whether or not Israel would take Erdoğan up on fixing what was once a close partnership. However, an assessment on its own does not provide a clear enough signal that Israel is ready to take further steps on the normalisation tract.

Alon Liel, a retired ambassador and former Director-General at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressed his belief that the current Israeli government was not interested in improving relations with Turkey.

“There is no minimal amount of trust on the leadership level,” Liel wrote in an email to Ahval.

Erdoğan, too, directly attributed the problem in the relationship to his Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There has been no shortage of harsh words exchanged between the pair, who are both known for their strong tendencies towards nationalist populism, which reduces domestic incentive to develop bilateral relations.

However, as Liel notes, any new Israeli tact taken towards Turkey would require that it consider the opinion of its allies; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, all of which happen to be rivals of Ankara’s.

Just this week, Israel concluded a$1.7 billion defence agreement with Greece which Jerusalem Post columnist Herb Kainon wrote signalled to Turkey that “the Israeli-Greek alliance, in fact the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot alliance, is here to stay.” Israel has also consistently backed Greece, as well as both Egypt and Cyprus, in rejecting Turkish maritime claims in the East Mediterranean.

The UAE is another important player looming over any Turkish-Israeli reconciliation. After the Emirates announced its intention to establish diplomatic relations with Israel with the support of the United States, Turkey slammed the deal and threatened to withdraw its ambassador from Abu Dhabi. Further tightening the web of adversaries, the UAE was invited by Egypt to join the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that also counts Israel, Greece, and Cyprus as members. It was also reported by Israeli media that Israel’s last ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na’eh, would lead Israel’s interim diplomatic post in Abu Dhabi. 

Finally, the election of Joe Biden as the next U.S. president has added to Ankara’s urgency to escape its growing isolation. Biden was critical of Turkey during his campaign, is a known supporter of Israel and endorsed the Abraham Accords in a rare sign of agreement with President Donald Trump.

From Ankara’s vantage point, reaching out to Israel may be among its better options for escaping its encirclement.

Even as they remain on opposite sides on many issues, Israel and Turkey both thoroughly supported Azerbaijan in its prosecution of a military campaign to reclaim the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was even reportedly working to serve as a mediator between his two allies to bring them back together. Turkish and Israeli interests similarly meet in Syria where they oppose Iran’s policies there.

In what could also be a ray of hope for Ankara, Israeli public opinion veers towards improving relations and neutrality in the eastern Mediterranean.

In the Mitvim Institute’s Foreign Policy Index that gauges attitudes on foreign policy, 57 percent of Israelis surveyed said they wanted better relations with Turkey and 44 said they believe Israel should avoid getting between Turkey’s dispute with Greece and Cyprus. 

Another bright spot is on economic matter. According to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute, Israel remains Turkey’s tenth largest export partner and trade grew four percent in the last year in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mesut Caşın, a foreign policy aide to Erdoğan, also suggested in an interview with Voice of America that Turkey would be interested in restoring what was once a pillar in their past friendship; the arms trade.

"Turkey bought a lot of weapons from Israel. We can arrange this again," he told VoA. "Turkey's and Israel's defense industries can go ahead together.”

Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, previously told Ahval in a podcast that defence ties were so deep that Israel has had to find multiple military export partners to make up for its loss of Turkey.

Were it not for Israeli technology, Turkey would not have been able to jump-start its now infamous armed drone program after failing to acquire the necessary technology from the United States.

Regardless of these statements, it is actions that will truly determine whether or not Israel will accept any olive branch from Turkey. One Israeli official rebuked Erdoğan in particular as untrustworthy and insisted on seeing actions from Ankara.

One area where action could go a long way would be in regard to the military activities of the Palestinian group Hamas, whose long history of operating on Turkish soil has remained a thorn in relations with Israel. Hamas is seen by Ankara as a legitimate political actor but as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.

From Turkey, Hamas is accused of plotting military activities against Israel, including cyber attacks and Israel has constantly called on Turkish authorities to clamp down on this to limited avail. Perhaps the biggest offense to Israel came through a report that Turkey granted citizenship to several top Hamas officials and sat Erdoğan down with its leadership in August, drawing the ire of both Tel Aviv and Washington.

There are some hints that Erdoğan could relent on Turkish support for Hamas in return for better relations with Israel.

According to one report, Erdoğan’s top advisor on foreign policy Ibrahim Kalin told European counterparts in Brussels that Ankara can prevent Hamas’ military activities as it did previously when it expelled one of its military leaders Saleh al-Arouri in 2015 from Istanbul.

Lindenstrauss, the INSS expert, does not believe this is likely given Turkey’s current foreign policy in the region.

“Turkey's political support to Hamas has been consistent since 2006 and I do not see Ankara changing course on the matter,” she told Ahval.

If “Ankara wants to show a more moderate stance” halting Hamas' terrorist activity against Israel or in the West Bank “would be a good starting point,” she added.

Retired ambassador Liel shares the view that any significant action from Turkey against Hamas has been wanting, adding that its continued presence may not even alter Israel’s stance towards its former partner.

“I do not think that at this stage reducing support for Hamas will make a difference. The level of mistrust seems too high,” Liel remarked.