Turkey and Israel need more than ambassadors to fix ties - Analyst

Turkey may be experimenting with a new attempt to normalise its tense relationship with Israel by sending a new ambassador to Tel-Aviv, but there is reason to be leery of reading too much into these moves as a sign that either Israel or Turkey is ready to return relations to normal, Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel-Aviv, told Ahval’s Nicholas Morgan in Turkey Abroad.

According to Lindenstrauss, the talks between Israel and Turkey over whether to restore diplomatic relations should be viewed as a “trial balloon” to reduce Ankara’s regional isolation.

“To many actors, Israel is no longer the root of the problems in the Middle East, but a part of the solution. On the other hand, Turkey is seen as a very negative actor,” the senior fellow said.

There were advantages to having Turkey by Israel’s side, she said, and Israel “has had to compensate for its loss of Turkey as an ally. It didn’t do so in one relationship, but in multiple ones.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced Ufuk Ulutaş as its new ambassador to Israel on Dec. 4, ending a two-year vacancy that started after the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Ulutaş, 40, is somewhat of an unconventional choice for this portfolio as he is not a career diplomat but has researched and studied in Israel in the past. He has also been described as having very pro-AKP and pro-Palestinian view.

Preceding the announcement were covert contacts taking place between both countries that discussed restoring relations to the ambassadorial level. Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s intelligence chief, was reported to have met with Israeli officials to talk about such a possibility in backchannel conversations.

“When we try to analyse the motives, we look at the recent election in the United States and in light of the Abraham Accords, which made Turkey more isolated in the Middle East,” Lindenstrauss told Ahval.

Lindenstrauss stressed that any move to restore ambassadorial contacts was “not that big of a deal,” because relations were never formally downgraded. It also remains uncertain as to whether any appointments will take place. There has been no official announcement of the move by either country to date.

The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House has in some ways sent a shock through the Turkish foreign policy apparatus. Biden is an avowed supporter of Israel and has been supportive of its normalisation efforts with Arab countries. In contrast, the president-elect was a vocal critic of Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan throughout his campaign.

However, if Turkey seeks to repair its relationship with Israel, Lindenstrauss said, Biden may find him to be an ally in doing so. Biden himself recounted his effort to broker warmer relations between Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an example of his personalised approach to dealmaking in foreign policy.

“They are probably thinking that it would be a good thing to relax tensions between Turkey and Israel,” said Lindenstrauss, referring to the Biden team.

Turkey and Israel once maintained close relations defined by security cooperation, but the overall relationship has been prone to flux. In a 2010 policy brief, Ulutaş, the possible ambassador, placed blame squarely on what he saw as Israel’s volatile domestic politics, regional isolation and deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

A decade later, Turkey is the increasingly isolated actor, and it too has experienced volatility at home. Lindenstrauss noted that Israel’s relations with Turkey have tended to rise and fall depending on its relations with Palestine. She pointed to the 1990s, when Turkish-Israeli relations were at their peak, as coinciding with the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Former Turkish admiral Cihat Yaycı has written a report recently and published by Moshe Dayan Center based in Tel Aviv, indicating a desire by Ankara to reconcile bilateral relations. The maritime borders suggested by Yayci between the two countries would merge at the expense of Cyprus, which is embroiled in an ongoing spat with Turkey.

Lindenstrauss said that the beyond legal issues, Israel or Egypt would prefer a deal with a partner they trust than a deal with Turkey which might offer more but these countries do not trust Turkey.

Yaycı is known for his nationalist and expansionist views, the architect of the Blue Homeland doctrine, and was one of the military officers best-known by the public. Erdoğan in December of 2019 explicitly thanked Yayci for his work on Turkey’s Libya policy and masterminding the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal.

Another factor that could hurt efforts to restore relations is the poor relationship between Erdoğan and Netanyahu. There has been no shortage of harsh words exchanged between the two leaders, and there is a political incentive at home to maintain a hard line with each other that could reduce any interest in reconciliation.

Lindenstrauss said that there was “a high level of suspicion between Erdoğan and Netanyahu” that was progressively worsened in some ways, but this might not be a total impediment. The two leaders have been in power since the last time relations frayed following the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, but today they have bigger foreign and domestic policies that limit appetite for further confrontation.

Despite remaining differences between the two countries, there are some grounds to improve relations. According to Lindenstrauss, losing Turkey as a security partner and a customer for its military exports was something that took Israel a number of years to adjust to completely. Trade and tourism have also persisted through poor relations, and Turkey remains Israel’s sixth largest trading partner.  

The fastest way for any improvement would be for Turkey to end the military activities of Hamas on its soil. Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States, and Turkey has been accused of providing funds and even citizenship to its top officials. If Ankara were to curtail the group’s military activities, this would be a major development towards better ties.

“If Israel sees a change in this aspect, it would be very welcome,” said Lindenstrauss. Pointing to Turkey’s contention that all terror groups be treated equally given its own struggle with Kurdish groups, she saw a potential shift against Hamas military actions on Turkish soil as grounds to cooperate.

This, however, would only be one step in fixing a very strained relationship. “Ambassadors are no magic cure,” said Lindenstrauss, and that more time was likely needed before any genuine improvement in Turkish-Israeli relations takes place.

“I think the return of the ambassadors is a feasible aim,” she said, “but it is not going to cure the deep suspicions between the two sides.”