Will regional and domestic challenges force renewed Israel-Turkey normalization?

Click photo to download. Caption: The Mavi Marmara leaves Antalya, Turkey for Gaza on May 22, 2010. Nine days later, the Mavi Marmara was at the center of the Gaza flotilla incident that led to a deterioration in Israel-Turkey relations. Credit: Free Gaza Movement via Wikimedia Commons.

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

Israel’s relations with Turkey, once its closest Muslim ally, have grown increasingly strained under the leadership of Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But after formally severing ties due to the fallout from the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, Israel and Turkey are reportedly on the brink of restoring full diplomatic relations.

In the midst of a messy election year in which Erdogan faces domestic political backlash over his increasingly authoritarian and Islamist policies, as well as the presence of growing regional threats like Syria and Iran for both Israel and Turkey, what would normalization offer the former allies?

“The domestic situation in Turkey is extremely tense and polarized,” Dr. Michael Koplow, who maintains a blog on Turkey and Israel called “Ottomans and Zionists” and serves as the program director at the Washington, DC-based Israel Institute think tank, told JNS.org.

“Turkey is quickly hardening into dueling camps of people who believe every allegation that is made against the government and people who believe that none of the allegations have a shred of truth to them,” he said.

Since taking office more than a decade ago, Erdogan’s biggest claim to success has been the stability he has brought after decades of military coup d’états. Under his leadership, the economy has dramatically improved and the country’s international profile has grown.

But that success has dwindled over the past year, with a growing number of Turks becoming disenchanted with Erdogan’s increasing authoritarian policies, including attacks on the media, judicial system and military as well as political corruption in his AKP party and a stalling economy. This came to a head last summer when protests called the “Gezi Park Protests” erupted in Istanbul and quickly spread to other major Turkish cities.

Click photo to download. Caption: Protesters in Istanbul pray before a demonstration relating to the Gaza flotilla on May 31, 2010. The flotilla incident led to the deterioration of Israel-Turkey relations. Credit: Bektour via Wikimedia Commons.

The opposition in Turkey—led by the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, a center-left socialist party created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey—gained momentum ahead of March 30 municipal elections. Leading up to the elections, Erdogan faced increased criticism over the government’s decision to block Twitter and YouTube.

“The government has been waging a battle with its former ally, the Gülen movement (a more moderate Islamist movement led by exiled Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen), and has [also] been dealing with leaks, allegations of large-scale corruption, protests in Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities,” Koplow said.

Yet before all the final results were in, Erdogan declared victory over his rivals in a late-night speech on March 30, with his AKP party winning local elections in Istanbul and leading in a close race in Ankara. As of early on March 31, AKP led with nearly 47 percent of the nationwide municipal vote, well surpassing the 39 percent it garnered in the last local elections in 2009. Analysts speculate that the results will embolden Erdogan to either mend party rules to seek a fourth term as prime minister or to run for president later this year.

“This nation has given a message to Turkey and to the world,” Erdogan said, according to Turkey’s Daily Hurriyet newspaper.

Amid the domestic upheaval, Israel and Turkey are reportedly nearing a deal on restoring ties.

A NATO member, Turkey in the past found Israel to be a reliable ally against 20th-century threats like pan-Arabism and communism. But with the rise of Erdogan and his Islamist AKP party, strong ties with the Jewish state became a political liability as Erdogan sought to reassert Turkey’s role as a Middle Eastern power.

The situation reached a breaking point in May 2010, when eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American were killed in clashes after they attacked Israeli soldiers on board the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which was trying to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. The incident led a formal suspension of Israeli-Turkish ties.

According to Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, a deal under which Israel would pay compensation to the families of the Turks killed abroad the Mavi Marmara could be signed as early as April, the Daily Hurriyet reported.

Click photo to download. Caption: Knives, wrenches, and wooden clubs used to attack Israel Defense Forces soldiers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara ship on May 31, 2010. Israeli clashes with Turkish militants on the ship, resulting in nine Turkish deaths, led to the deterioration of Israel-Turkey relations. Credit: Israel Defense Forces.

“The gap between the expectations of the two sides is closing,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuoglu told AFP. “Progress has been made to a great extent, but the two sides need to meet again for a final agreement.”

A flotilla compensation deal would lead to a restoration of full diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey, including the reopening of embassies. There have even been reports that Erdogan would visit Israel and the Palestinian territories.

While reports of the deal appear have appeared in Turkish media and have cited Turkish leaders, the Israeli government has denied that a deal is imminent.

Koplow believes the impetus for reconciliation on the Turkish side has come from two places— pressure from the U.S., and a string of foreign policy failures over the past year.

“The Turkish government believes that making up with Israel will alleviate some of the recent tension with the U.S., and President Obama reportedly emphasized his expectation that Erdogan make tangible moves toward patching things up,” he told JNS.org.

The U.S. has been highly involved in fixing the relationship of its two key Middle East allies. In March 2013, during his publicized trip to Israel, President Barack Obama pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call Erdogan and apologize for the deaths of the Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. After the call, Erdogan’s office issued a statement saying that Turkey valued its “friendship” with Israel.

Yet since then, negotiations on restoring ties have been slow to bear fruit, despite several rounds of talks over compensation. Some in Israel are skeptical of Erdogan’s true intentions in the negotiations.

Click photo to download. Caption: A demonstration against the rule of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul's Taksim Square on June 15, 2013. Credit: Fleshstorm via Wikimedia Commons.

“I’m not certain that Erdogan is committed to a deal, as long as he demands the removal of the blockade on Gaza, there is no deal as far as Israel is concerned,” Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Turkish-Israeli relations, told JNS.org.

While it remains uncertain if Erdogan is truly motivated to restore ties with Israel, on a geopolitical level, a Turkish-Israeli alliance would enable both countries to confront myriad of regional threats.

“An Israeli-Turkish alliance makes sense in a lot of ways. Both countries have need of countering and containing Iranian regional influence, both countries border an increasingly unstable Syria, and both countries can benefit from Israel’s natural gas finds as Turkey is a large energy importer while Israel is now poised to be an exporter,” Koplow said.

But the biggest challenge for restoring ties may lie in the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Turkey, undoubtedly fostered by Erdogan and his AKP party.

While Turkey has a sizable secular population with strong ties with Europe, most Turks, like their counterparts in the rest of the Muslim world, do not have a favorable view of Israel, and anti-Semitism is rampant in the country

Yet this hasn’t always been the case. Modern Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, welcomed thousands of Jews who were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition centuries ago, where they set up thriving communities.

Nevertheless, many of Turkey’s remaining Jews—roughly 15,000—are now regularly fleeing the country to Israel and elsewhere due to anti-Semitism. Last year, Erdogan and other top AKP officials blamed Jews for being behind anti-government protests in June 2013. Erdogan said that the “interest rate lobby” was behind the protests, implicitly referring to Jews, while Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said it was the “Jewish Diaspora” that orchestrated the protests. 

“Turkish domestic politics reward Israel-bashing, and Turkey’s open support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, do not endear it to Israelis. Israel is extremely unpopular with Turkish voters, and so no party in government is going to go out of its way to cultivate strong ties with Israel,” Koplow said.

Like most Muslim leaders, Erdogan has taken up the Palestinian cause to bolster his political standing.

“There is definitely is a widespread sympathy for the Palestinians among the Turks, this puts Israel at a disadvantage,” Inbar said.

At the same time, despite the secular opposition’s recent gains ahead of municipal elections, there still isn’t a viable alternative to Erdogan that Israel could establish warmer relations with.  

“Erdogan’s future looks weaker than it once did, but there is no plausible opponent who can replace him in the foreseeable future. Turkey’s opposition parties are largely feckless and do not compete on a national scale with the AKP,” Kolplow said.

While it is unlikely that Turkish-Israeli ties will return to their pre-Erdogan days, an arrangement similar to what Israel and Egypt share—where the countries don’t have a particularly warm relationship, but cooperate on economic and security matters—could be in the cards. As such, despite potential political drawbacks of restoring relations for Erdogan, who will likely continue to promote the Palestinian cause and heavily criticize Israel, Inbar still believes it is in Israel’s best long-term interest to work with Turkey.

“Turkey is an important regional actor, it is a country with a large Muslim identity, and we would like to have relations with these types of countries, because we would like to dilute the religious dimensions to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Inbar said.

He added, “The ball is not in Jerusalem’s court, it is in Ankara’s.”

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Posted on March 31, 2014 and filed under Features, Israel, News, World.