Turkey drifts away from Israel, towards Iran

Bahrain followed in the United Arab Emirates’ footsteps by announcing on Friday that it intends to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The two countries are set to meet with U.S. officials in Washington to sign declarations of normalisation supported by President Donald Trump.

The day Bahrain announced its intentions was not even over before Turkey expressed its disagreement with the decision, just as it had with the UAE.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned Bahrain’s decision that would encourage Israel to continue disregarding Palestinian interests and undermine regional peace plans. The ministry said in its statement that doing so “would deal yet another blow to the efforts to defend the Palestinian cause and would further embolden Israel to continue its illegal acts and attempts to perpetuate the occupation of the Palestinian territories”.

It is commonly suggested that the reason Israel and the Gulf monarchies are now moving towards open diplomatic relations has to do with their common enemy – Iran. The Trump administration’s support in touting these initiatives is believed to cement this notion as it continues to pursue its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran’s regime.

However, Turkey is another country that inspires mounting concerns in Israel and in Arab countries, particularly under its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His confrontational policies across the region and his attempt to undermine his rival politically has only deepened their concerns.

Seth J. Frantzman, Executive Director at the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA), believes that Turkey’s role in the decision by Arab states to align with Israel is overlooked.

“I really believe that sometimes the Turkish element is actually absent from the discussion in the West,” Frantzman told Ahval in a podcast. He attributes this to the prominence of what he calls the anti-Iran lobby, which pushes this view as the main one through which to observe dynamics in the Middle East.

“The crucible that drove Israel and the Gulf states together is not just the Iranian problem, which was always there for decades,” explains Frantzman. “It's the Turkish challenge, the reality of what Turkey has become and that's only happened in the last few years.”

Relations between Turkey and Israel have grown more distant despite Turkey being the first Muslim-majority nation to recognise Israel in 1949.

This decline began in 2010 following the Mavi Marmara incident, in which ten Turkish activists were killed after Israeli forces attacked a Turkish-owned vessel that was part of a flotilla seeking to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza by delivering aid and humanitarian support.

In some Israeli security circles, Turkey is increasingly seen as a threat. An Israeli Defence Force assessment in January listed Turkey as a “challenge” for the first time. Yossi Cohen, director of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, reportedly told counterparts that he viewed Turkey as a bigger threat than even Iran.

Frantzman said Israel’s distrust to Erdoğan’s assertiveness has contributed to an arrogance in Ankara, but concern in Israel that it could be a potential target one day.

“If you get addicted to keeping your army, people have to wonder when does that busyness start to reflect on Israel? There is a concern on what is Turkey going to do,” said Frantzman.

Another worry relates to Turkey’s relationship with Iran. The same week that Bahrain announced it would begin diplomatic ties, Erdoğan met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to discuss new areas of bilateral cooperation.

Like Turkey, Iran aided Qatar when its neighbours blockaded it in 2017 and they have cooperated diplomatically in Syria, where they back opposite sides. Ankara and Tehran are also allies of Hamas, the Palestinian ruling faction in the Gaza Strip that regularly skirmishes with Israeli forces. Following the UAE-Israel deal last month, Hamas’ representative in Iran said in an interview that Iran, Turkey and Qatar should unite against the new Israeli-Arab alliance.

According to Frantzman, Turkey and Iran are already working together against Israel and there is concern about the room they have to deepen their relationship.

“I think we have to wonder down the road whether there will be a growing consensus of interests between Turkey and Iran,” Frantzman told Ahval.

Asked where he believes the relationship will go, Frantzman said that it is unlikely that Turkish-Israeli tensions will lessen any time soon and the reason why extends to Israel’s relations with Iran. In the present moment, Frantzman said the incentives to sow chaos remain strong for both Iran and Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), reducing any chances of improvement.

“There is no reason this region can’t be more peaceful, but obviously the [AKP] and the regime in Iran thrive on these conflicts and gain a lot by them and get to stay in power.”