Post-Netanyahu Relations between Turkey and Israel
In foreign policy, self-interests are more important than anything else. However, the role of leadership also influences a country’s international relations to a certain extent. In particular, some politicians who leave office after many years in power leave behind a complex political legacy.
Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has dominated his country’s politics since 2009 and embodied his politics in the eyes of the world, was dethroned.
During his twelve-year reign there were several key regional developments, including Arab uprisings, the nuclear deal with Iran and the Abraham Accords. During his tenure, too, Israel’s relationship with its former ally Turkey, which in 1949 was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, reached new lows.
Over the past decade, Ankara and Tel Aviv have become increasingly critical of each other’s policies in the region, and these incompatible agendas have put them on a collision course. In order to shed light on Netanyahu’s legacy and the core of the diplomatic conflict between Israel and Turkey, it is important to remember what happened to the relationship.
The tensions can be traced back to the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008 and 2009, which became a turning point. The most dramatic development was the “one minute” incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. During a panel discussion entitled “Gaza: The Case for Middle East Peace”, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkish Prime Minister, refused to be silenced by the moderator while attempting to respond to Israeli President Shimon Peres’ justification for Israeli military action. Finally, a frustrated Erdogan stormed off the stage. This was the first big shock in Turkish-Israeli relations.
The escalating tensions led to a diplomatic crisis in January 2010 when the Turkish ambassador to Israel sat in a significantly lower chair than his host during a meeting with the Israeli deputy foreign minister, a humiliation that was interpreted as an attempt to portray the ambassador as inferior The minister. Years later, the ambassador said, “It was an incident that has not been seen in diplomatic history. There are incidents where emissaries are mistreated; but you do it in their face, you don’t do it from behind. “
Five months later, the Mavi Marmara incident occurred when Israeli security forces ambushed a flotilla to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, killing nine civilians. Ankara responded by severing diplomatic relations with Israel.
The years between 2008 and 2010 clearly put Turkish-Israeli relations to the test. Then Arab uprisings began that changed many of the balance of power in the region. The changes, including the destabilization of Syria and a strengthening of the Iranian position, put Ankara and Tel Aviv jointly in jeopardy and forced the two countries to negotiate.
The first step towards normalization took place in 2013 when US President Barack Obama enabled a phone call between Netanyahu and Erdogan. The former apologized for the incident in Mavi Marmara and promised to compensate the victims’ families. However, due to national and regional developments this year, no progress has been made: a military coup in Egypt and the protests in Gezi Park that swept across Turkey.
During this time, Erdogan and Netanyahu continued to direct harsh rhetoric against each other while reaching out to their supporters, further complicating the reconciliation process.
In 2016, Ankara and Tel Aviv reached another agreement and reappointed ambassadors as part of a reconciliation agreement. However, the process was halted when Netanyahu was given the opportunity to pursue his dream of making Jerusalem the capital of Israel following the election of Donald Trump as US President.
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital and the harsh Israeli response to Palestinian street protests, in which 52 people were killed, further collapsed efforts to improve Turkish-Israeli relations. Diplomatic relations were downgraded again in 2018. Since then, relations between the two states have only been maintained at the charge d’affaires.
In December last year, Erdogan said Turkey has not completely severed ties with Israel and continues to work with the country on intelligence matters, adding that “the main problem right now is the people at the top”.
Now that Netanyahu, viewed by Ankara as the main obstacle to the thawing of relations, has been ousted from his throne, what could the future hold for relations between nations?
As non-Arab, western-oriented powers in the region, Turkey and Israel have been indispensable partners for decades. However, things have changed significantly in the past decade. Ankara’s firm support for the Palestinian cause and a distrust of Netanyahu and his aggressive policies have sparked several crises that have left deep scars in both nations.
As Turkish-Israeli relations became increasingly strained, Tel Aviv has sought closer ties elsewhere in order to limit Turkish influence in the region. In 2017, Israel even declared its support for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, despite Ankara’s concerns.
As non-Arab, western-oriented powers in the region, Turkey and Israel have been indispensable partners for decades. However, in the past decade, things have changed significantly.
Obviously, Turkey and Israel have been drifting apart for some time in diplomatic, political and security policy respects. The Palestinian cause, which Erdogan referred to as a red line for Turkey, has become the most fragile problem between two countries. As a result, the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, good or bad, is likely to affect relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
The upheaval following the election of Joe Biden is also likely to have an impact on Turkish-Israeli relations. A new regional geopolitics in the Biden era, along with a combination of economic, energetic, intelligence and political interests, could propel Turkey and post-Netanyahu Israel into a new era of reconciliation.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political scientist who specializes in Turkey’s Middle East relations. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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