Turkey-Israel ties slowly improve not out of love, but due to realism



Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (left) looks on as incoming Turkish Ambassador to Israel Kemal Okem speaks during a ceremony for new ambassadors at the President's Residence in Jerusalem Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90.

By Ariel Ben Solomon/JNS.org

Israel and Turkey recently took their latest step towards restoring full ties by exchanging ambassadors, but their slowly improving relationship may be more of an acknowledgement of regional reality than an expression of mutual admiration.

Earlier this month, Israel’s new ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na’eh, presented his diplomatic credentials to Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Na’eh previously served on Israel’s National Security Council and had worked in the Israeli Embassy in Turkey. Newly appointed Turkish Ambassador to Israel Kemal Okem, meanwhile, is a former adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

Pini Avivi, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey from 2003-2007, recently met with Okem.

“The exchange of ambassadors was very important,” Avivi told JNS.org, explaining that both new envoys are professional appointments, not political ones.

Dr. Harold Rhode, a distinguished senior fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute think tank and the former Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense, told JNS.org that June’s Israel-Turkey reconciliation deal favored the Jewish state because Israel did not give up anything significant.

Israel gained a Turkish commitment not to pursue criminal cases against Israel Defense Forces soldiers involved in the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed after they had attacked Israeli commandos aboard a vessel that was trying to breach the blockade on Gaza. Israel also agreed to pay what Rhode considers an insignificant sum of $20 million to the families of the Turkish flotilla victims, while allowing Turkish aid shipments to enter Gaza. The shipments, Rhode noted, need “to go through checks in [the Israeli port of] Ashdod. Israel is monitoring everything.” 

After agreeing to restore ties, the Jewish state has also gained the potential benefit of exporting natural gas to Turkey and beyond, added Rhode.

“Therefore, despite the fact that both states don’t love each other, they are cooperating largely because Erdogan was forced into a corner by poor regional relations and a contracting economy,” Rhode said. “If Erdogan was not forced into this deal because of the existing political circumstances, he would almost assuredly continue to be passionately anti-Israel.”

Indeed, Erdogan is known for his propensity for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments, and he could still react angrily following any Israeli action he deems undesirable, whether it be a new war with Hamas-controlled Gaza or another kind of escalation of violence with the Palestinians. 

One of Erdogan’s most notorious outbursts against Israel came during the 2014 Gaza war, when he said that the actions of the Israel Defense Forces constituted “barbarism that surpasses Hitler.” Asked about his 2014 comment in an interview with Israeli television journalist Ilana Dayan last month, Erdogan said, “I don't approve of what Hitler did, and neither do I approve of what Israel has done. When it's a question of so many people dying, it's inappropriate to ask who was the more barbarous.”

At the same time, Erdogan had practical reasons to restore ties with a country he has so vocally criticized. Turkey is facing terrorism at home—including the Dec. 19 assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara and twin bombings that killed 44 people in Istanbul Dec. 10—and an unfriendly neighborhood abroad. Former Israeli envoy Avivi explained that Israel and Turkey have similar foreign policy views in a number of areas, including concerns over the Syrian civil war and growing Iranian regional power.

The decision to restore ties with Israel also occurred around the same time that relations between Turkey and Russia soured over Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Syria-Turkey border in November 2015.

“Erdogan loathes Israel, but the repairing of ties is now more important to him than to Israel,” Rhode told JNS.org, adding that President-elect Donald Trump’s stated foreign policy intentions and affection for Israel could also prevent Erdogan from ripping up the normalization deal.

Turkish Jews on edge

Jews living in Turkey, meanwhile, remain uneasy discussing their situation publicly amid an ongoing government crackdown on supporters of the failed coup against Erdogan in July as well as the president’s efforts to consolidate his power.

Pablo Benavides, Spain’s consul general in Turkey, told Agencia EFE in June that among 4,000 applications worldwide for Spanish citizenship based on a law of return for the Spanish Inquisition, 2,600 applications came from residents of Istanbul. Additionally, more than 1,000 Turkish Jews have made aliyah to Israel during the past decade, the Times of Israel reported, citing official sources and “anecdotal evidence” that the rate of Turkish aliyah may be increasing.

“Turkish Jews are petrified of Erdogan and won’t say what they really think, because they know they will pay,” Rhode told JNS.org. “Erdogan is vengeful.”

Optimism on economic front

Yet despite the fraying of relations between Israel and Turkey over the 2010 flotilla incident, the nations’ economic ties never deteriorated. Bilateral Turkish-Israeli trade stands at around $4 billion a year. Avivi said there is no reason to believe that the countries’ diplomatic reconciliation and the terrorism in Turkey would get in the way of bilateral trade, asserting that there is “a lot of interest on both sides.”

Selin Nasi, a columnist for Turkish newspapers including the Hurriyet Daily News and the Jewish weekly Salom, told JNS.org, “The re-establishment of formal channels of diplomatic dialogue will foster cooperation between the two countries and help them overcome conflicts.”

Nasi said that given the recent massive terror attack in Istanbul, Israel and Turkey “should focus more on solidarity.”

“Terror can hit anywhere in the world, whether in Istanbul, Paris or Jerusalem,” she said. Asked if the Turkey’s Jews are seeking to leave the country, she responded, “Fleeing the country is not a solution when living in an age of terror.”

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a researcher specializing in Turkey at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, told JNS.org that if the Turkish security situation improves, “it could lead to a booming of trade and tourism between the two countries.” Yanarocak said the nations’ exchange of ambassadors should be seen as an early step to rebuild trust.

Asked to compare Turkey-Israel rapprochement to Turkey’s reconciliation efforts with Russia, Yanarocak said that in the case of Russian-Turkish relations, the restoration of ties is much further along. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan have visited each other and have maintained high-level communication, whereas official Turkish-Israeli communication has taken place at a much lower level.

Yanarocak’s comments came before the Dec. 19 assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, who was fatally shot by 22-year-old Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas during a speaking engagement at an art gallery in Turkey’s capital of Ankara. After opening fire, Altintas was captured on video saying, “Allahu akbar. Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!”

Putin and Erdogan both called the assassination a “provocation” aimed at undermining the normalization of Russian-Turkish relations, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the assassination and sent condolences to Russia. 

“The murder of a diplomat serves as a stark reminder of the need for the civilized world to come together in fighting the forces of terrorism,” Netanyahu said.

Posted on December 20, 2016 and filed under Israel, News.