OpinionIsrael at War

The future of Israel’s policy in the Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey, at least as long as the AKP is in power, cannot be considered a reliable partner for major national projects such as energy exports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in August 2022. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in August 2022. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Within days of the outbreak of the war, it became clear that the hopes generated in recent months of an improved relationship between Israel and Turkey were sadly unfounded. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did stop short, by his own admission, of cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel altogether, but announced (Nov. 4, 2023) the recall of Ambassador Sakir Ozkan Torunlar for consultations and declared that he had “erased” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an interlocutor.

This came as a response to Israel’s own decision (Oct. 28) to officially recall Ambassador Irit Lillian (in fact, she left on Oct. 19, amidst a spate of threats against the Embassy and Israelis). Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen took this drastic step in the wake of Erdogan’s speech at a massive rally marking the republic’s 100th anniversary, in which he rejected the description of Hamas as a terrorist organization and sharply attacked Israel for its operations in Gaza.

In a demonstration of dismay over American support for Israel, Erdogan chose to embark on a tour of the countryside during United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit. At the popular (or populist) level, a march was organized against the U.S. presence at the Incirlik Air Force Base. Erdogan’s key coalition partner, Devlet Bahceli, openly raised the idea of intervening militarily in support of Hamas; and pro-government papers such as Yeni Safak published countless articles with antisemitic tropes and comparisons of Israelis and Nazis.

For those in Israel who had been nurturing hopes for a real improvement in relations with Turkey, this came as a painful setback—but it should not have come as a surprise. Erdogan’s basic instincts on Israel have always been hostile—apparently going back to his days as a teacher, when he railed against “the Communists, the Freemasons and the Jews”—and have surfaced repeatedly at times of crisis. He needed an improved image so as to court Israel’s newfound friends in the Gulf, but this was never more than a thin veneer, easily torn.

The implication is clear—Turkey, at least as long as the AKP is in power, cannot be considered a reliable partner for major national projects such as energy exports. Public reactions will probably be translated into a significant reduction in the demand for Turkish goods. There have been fluctuations before, but not against the background of a searing national experience such as Oct. 7.

Internationally, the expectation must be that Turkey (and Qatar!) would divest themselves of the presence of Hamas leaders on their soil. A member of NATO hosting an organization of this nature is a contradiction in terms, and while the Treaty’s 1949 Statutes have no provisions for removing a member, there are ways of rendering this membership meaningless.

Cyprus and Greece prove their value  

The solidarity visit (Oct. 21, 2023) of President Nikos Christodoulides of Cyprus—elected in 2022, but a longstanding friend of Israel since his days as foreign minister—was the symbolic expression of an increasingly significant relationship. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece planned a visit early on, postponed it as the fighting intensified and finally came Oct. 23. The position he took at the so-called regional summit in Cairo (Oct. 21) was among the reasons the Arab participants failed to generate the outcome they sought, rendering it less problematic from Israel’s perspective.

He did, however, meet as well with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during the humanitarian aid conference in Paris, and joined his French host in expressing concern (as “a friend of Israel, offering hard truths”) about civilian lives lost in Gaza.

Even more important than their diplomatic stance, Cyprus and to some extent Greece proved their value in an emergency as Israel’s backup air and sea “rear areas.” Many air and shipping lines chose to cancel their service to Israel due to the risk of coming under rocket attack. Under these circumstances, Israeli national carriers such as the shipping line Zim and the now privatized national airline El-Al—in which the government holds a privileged position, enabling it to oblige them to provide services during wartime—were able to shuttle between Israel’s ports and airports to neighboring Larnaca, Limassol, Piraeus and Athens, sustaining Israel’s vital lines of supplies and communications.

Egypt remains a key player

Troubled by the sights from Gaza, under pressure from an anti-Israeli public and from its Arab “sisters,” and angered by loose talk in Israel, including at the ministerial level, about pushing the Gazan population out into Sinai, Egypt has been a problematic partner since the war began. Exchanges between the two countries have been limited to the narrow professional (military and intelligence) channels, and, in the public domain, Egypt joined the choir of condemnation.

In practice, however, there was no act (so far) of degrading diplomatic relations (whereas Jordan recalled its ambassador for consultations). The dispatch of Israeli warships to the Red Sea was facilitated by passage —in wartime—through the Suez Canal, as both countries have an interest (alongside Saudi Arabia) in neutralizing the threat of missile and drone attacks from the Houthi-held parts of Yemen.

Most importantly, Egypt became the conduit of humanitarian aid to the southern zone of the Gaza Strip, thus facilitating supplies—to the dismay of many angry Israeli citizens, but in line with the IDF’s strategy of inducing the uninvolved to leave the battle zones in Gaza City. Egypt is bound to remain a key strategic player, if indirectly, in any design for the next stages of combat—and even more so as plans begin to emerge for “the day after.” Sustaining an effective dialogue with Cairo and avoiding acts and statements that would exacerbate tensions must remain a vital aspect of Israeli policy, in line with the Mediterranean policy at large.

Lessons learned

While this is certainly not a central concern during the war, it is nevertheless a significant (and in some respect, vital) lesson—telling friend from foe, avoiding any dependence and reducing economic interactions with essentially hostile players, and investing efforts and resources in tightening the bonds of strategic alignment with like-minded partners in the Eastern Mediterranean. Whatever their role may be in seeking the release of hostages, neither Turkey nor its Qatari ally should have any role in post-war Gaza. An Egyptian role however is inevitable, and a well-managed Cypriot and Greek involvement could facilitate (for a new and different regime in Gaza) the benefits of an opening to the world that were impossible under Hamas.

Originally published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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