analysisMiddle East

Israel’s relationship with Turkey at a crossroads yet again

In the aftermath of Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre, Israel-Turkey relations have once again become the scapegoat of Turkish domestic politics, expert tells JNS.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey on March 9, 2022. Source: Isaac Herzog/Twitter.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey on March 9, 2022. Source: Isaac Herzog/Twitter.
Israel Kasnett

In an effort to improve bilateral relations after years of tumultuous fluctuations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York in September 2023. 

Their cordial relationship would be short-lived. Just a few weeks later, on Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, killing over 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping over 240 civilians and soldiers. 

The massacre marked yet another turning point for Israel-Turkish relations, as Erdogan backed Hamas. Unlike many of its NATO allies and the European Union, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization and hosts members of the group on its territory. 

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, noted that since 2003, looking at Turkey’s foreign relations as a whole, Erdogan “has engaged in highly erratic, contentious policies with every important foreign government, with the possible exception of Azerbaijan.” 

“There are so many examples,” he told JNS, pointing to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Greece, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, China and the United States. 

“He’s even had tormented relations with his own puppet government in northern Cyprus,” said Pipes. “Thus, Ankara’s unsteady relations with Jerusalem fit a general pattern.”

The Israel-Turkey relationship

The relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara has been marred by significant ebbs and flows over the last 14 years as Erdogan sought to use regional events to his domestic political advantage.

Relations between the former allies deteriorated in 2010 after Israeli naval commandos came under attack and killed 10 Turks in a raid on the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla attempting to breach Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip.

In 2013, at the end of then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and just minutes before he departed from Tel Aviv to Jordan on Air Force One, he brokered a phone call at the airport between Netanyahu and Erdogan during which they agreed to reestablish relations.

However, this attempt at reconciliation was thwarted in 2014 by renewed airstrikes against Hamas, during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” which Erdogan condemned vehemently, likening Israel’s actions to those of Hitler. 

It wasn’t until 2016, following Israeli compensation to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara, that diplomatic ties were reinstated with the exchange of ambassadors. 

Yet this peace was also short-lived.

In 2019, Israel was forced to suppress the Hamas-instigated “Great March of Return” in Gaza, during which Palestinians attacked the border fence, resulting in numerous Palestinian casualties and reigniting tensions between the Turkish president and the Israeli prime minister. 

Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey in March 2022, and subsequent visits by both foreign ministers helped thaw relations, which ultimately led to the Erdogan-Netanyahu meeting in New York in September.

The meeting took place against the backdrop of Ankara’s efforts to resolve disputes with Arab nations like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, coinciding with a broader global alignment with Israel in the wake of the Abraham Accords.

Ankara saw the revival of diplomatic relations with Israel not just as a matter of bilateral interest but also as a strategic move to enhance its standing in Washington.

Erdogan has sought to mend ties with former adversaries, seeing it as a means to also bolster the struggling Turkish economy and enhance the country’s standing in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

One major driver behind the reconciliation with Israel had been the potential for economic gain, particularly since Israel’s discovery of gas reserves off its coast in 2010. Turkey serves as a crucial transit route for Israeli gas to reach Europe. By reducing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy, both Israel and Turkey could benefit economically and diplomatically from their cooperation.

However, after Oct. 7, and with elections looming, Erdogan backtracked, hoping that by stiffening his position against Israel in support of Hamas, he could win back the symbolic cities of Ankara and Istanbul, which he had lost in the 2019 elections. 

But on March 31, Turkey’s Islamist opposition won a stunning victory across several major cities in the country’s local elections, including Ankara and Istanbul, dealing a severe blow to Erdogan and his ruling party.

Trying to save face, Erdogan has doubled down on his criticism of Israel and support for Hamas and the Palestinians.

For instance, last week Erdogan offered condolences in a phone call to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh after three of his sons were eliminated in an Israeli air strike in Gaza.

“Israel will definitely be held accountable before the law for the crimes against humanity it committed,” Erdogan told Haniyeh, according to an AFP report.

The honeymoon is over

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) at Tel Aviv University, told JNS the relationship between Israel and Turkey before the war with Hamas “was a honeymoon.”

After Oct. 7, Erdogan adopted not only a pro-Palestinian stance, but “he took it further and adopted a pro-Hamas attitude,” said Yanarocak.

“He legitimized the terror group and challenged Israel,” he added. “As a result we saw a deterioration in the relations.”

“Since then,” he said, “we had a very bitter discourse against Israel in Turkey. Erdogan lost a lot of support in recent elections due to Islamist parties and their demands to cut relations with Israel.”

In addition, he said, facing disloyalty within his own party, Erdogan’s solution was “to neutralize the bargaining chip of the opposing parties by implementing trade limitations with Israel.”

Last week, Turkey restricted exports of a wide range of products to Israel until a ceasefire is reached in Gaza. Israel said it would respond to the measures, which include curbs on exports of steel, fertilizer and jet fuel, with its own restrictions on products from Turkey.

Responding to the measures, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Turkey had “unilaterally violated” trade agreements with Israel.

Erdogan “is again sacrificing the economic interests of the people of Turkey in order to support Hamas, and we will respond in kind,” said Katz.

Over the years, Turkey tripled its exports to Israel, from $2.3 billion in 2011 to $7 billion in 2022. Until now, Turkey was Israel’s fifth-largest supplier, as well as its seventh-largest customer, accounting for 2.2% of Israel’s exports, to the tune of $2.5 billion per year. 

“Once again, Turkey-Israel relations became the scapegoat of Turkish domestic politics,” said Yanarocak.

While there are no direct flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul, no proper tourism between the two countries and bilateral trade has been reduced, relations between the two countries “remain cold, but on paper at least we have relations,” he added.

He noted however that if a new Gaza flotilla from Turkey arrives off Israel’s coast, as is expected, this will further strain relations.

In Yanarocak’s view, relations will likely only improve once both Erdogan and Netanyahu leave office.

“Today, the Turks look at Netanyahu as committing genocide [in Gaza], and it will be difficult for them to do a U-turn,” he said.

“In politics everything can change, but in the short term, in Israel we will need a new government to turn a new page with Turkey, and they will need a new government to turn a new page with Israel,” he said.

This back-and-forth pattern of relations between Israel and Turkey seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

According to Pipes, “Erdogan aspires to regional great power status and keeps changing his mind as circumstances change. Despite having firm Islamist beliefs, he will do almost anything in pursuit of this goal.” 

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