Is Israel's new alliance with UAE against Turkey?

On August 13, it was announced that Israel, with the support of U.S. President Donald Trump, would begin the process of normalising its relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The UAE is only the third Arab country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

While the agreement was hailed by many as a notable achievement for Trump, whose administration sees the new Israeli-Emirati thaw as creating a more united front against Iran in the region, for Ankara, the move signified another step toward a wider anti-Turkish axis in the region.

For Israel, the deal provided an off-ramp for a planned annexation of the West Bank, a promise that helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintain domestic support amid a corruption trial and international opposition. The UAE meanwhile brought a covert relationship into the light  with the hope of winning more influence in Washington.

Turkey did not waste time in criticising the Israel-UAE announcement. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to suspend relations with the UAE and withdraw his ambassador from Abu Dhabi.

"We may either suspend diplomatic ties or recall our ambassador because we stand with the Palestinian people. We have not let Palestine be defeated or let it be defeated,” Erdoğan said.

In his statement to reporters, Erdoğan made clear he sees this move as part of further effort in forming a front against Ankara.

This is felt particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has been locked in disputes with Greece and Cyprus over access to energy resources.

Both Israel and the UAE have expressed opposition against Ankara's claims. On Tuesday, four Emirati F-16 jets landed in Crete for joint drills with Greece, coming on the heels of Turkish naval exercises in the Aegean over the weekend.

Israel also previously stated its solidarity with Greece and moved to deepen their military ties. One Israeli official told the Jerusalem Post that the Greeks are viewed as a natural strategic partner to develop ties to in the Mediterranean because of Turkish aggression.

“Certainly the expansion of Turkey's operations to Libya and Africa more generally have created links between eastern Mediterranean and North African issues,” Zenonas Tziarras, a researcher at the PRIO Cyprus Centre in Nicosia, told Ahval. “Not least because the two areas fall within the framework of Turkey's naval strategy and its ‘Blue Homeland’ vision. “

Blue Homeland is a naval doctrine reportedly developed by former Rear Admiral Cem Gürdeniz that suggests Turkey has to aggressively expand its maritime borders in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey’s poor relationship with the UAE is well known. They support opposing sides in the Libyan conflict and compete in a wider ideological struggle over political Islam’s spread in the Middle East.

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 (IDF) assessment in January listed Turkey as a “challenge” for the first time and Yossi Cohen, director of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, reportedly told counterparts that he viewed Turkey as a bigger threat than arch-enemy Iran.

“Iranian power is fragile, but the real threat is from Turkey,” Cohen reportedly told spymasters from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor and now a professor at Columbia University, believes that Turkey did not play a significant role in Israel’s decision to normalise relations with the UAE. Instead, he says, it is Erdoğan and his aggressive rhetoric against Israel that fuelled this assessment.

“Erdoğan couldn’t be worse - he has turned Turkey into an almost enemy state,” Freilich told Ahval.

Asked about Cohen’s remark on Turkey being a greater danger than Iran, Freilich attributes this to concern about Erdoğan’s willingness to defy even his allies in NATO in pursuing an assertive unilateral foreign policy.  

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow and a specialist on Turkish foreign policy at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, echoed this view. The decision by the UAE and Israel to align was made less with Turkey explicitly in mind, but a shared concern for its aggressive actions played a part “in solidifying an anti-Turkey axis in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Lindenstrauss emphasised that Israel had its own security concerns independent of the UAE that made Turkey potentially menacing, particularly as it relates to Erdoğan’s support of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

“In recent years there has been greater awareness and growing concern throughout the security establishment in Israel to the fact that on Turkish soil Hamas is able to conduct activities that are not only political in nature but also have a direct link to its military wing,” she told Ahval.

Israel has frequently accused Turkey of providing Hamas a safe haven to plan attacks and raise funds. On Aug. 14, the Telegraph reported that senior operatives from the group were granted Turkish citizenship, including a suspect who is accused of plotting to assassinate Jerusalem’s mayor.

Just last week, Erdoğan as well as his intelligence chief Hakan Fidan met in Istanbul with members of Hamas’ leadership. The U.S State Department condemned the meeting and warned that it risked isolation for Turkey. Hamas is designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in the U.S.

Israel’s discomfort with Turkish policy and alignment with Abu Dhabi does not mean it is anticipating greater confrontation with Erdoğan. Trade ties between the countries remain robust and Israel has been less pronounced than the UAE in taking sides in the eastern Mediterranean, even if it opposes Ankara’s claims there. However, Turkey’s belligerent attitude towards almost all states in the region for a variety of reasons, is helping those countries like UAE and Israel, but also Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, Jordan to close the ranks and dim any chance for those countries to support Ankara in case a real conflict erupts in any of the war theaters Turkey is currently involved in.

In an interview last November after the maritime deal signed between Ankara and Libya’s internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Foreign Minister Israel Katz called the move illegal but ruled out confrontation.

“But that doesn’t mean we’re sending battleships to confront Turkey,” Katz told Israel’s Channel 13.

Tziarras said that behind the regional tension, Israel’s stance is careful to avoid closing a door to dialogue with Turkey.

“States like Israel would like to counterbalance Turkey, not cut off every prospect for dialogue and reconciliation perhaps in a post-Erdoğan Turkey,” Tziarras said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.