Turkish-Israeli relations: Pulling back from the brink?

    Tel Aviv and Ankara have the opportunity to de-escalate tensions and establish dialogue after the turbulent Netanyahu era.

    In December 2008, Turkey mediated talks between Syria and Israel that almost yielded a peace treaty. During his visit to Turkey, then-Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, told Turkish officials that he would give them Israel’s final response. 

    However, this landmark opportunity was wasted because Tel Aviv launched Operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza just five days after a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ankara felt betrayed by Israel’s aggression and the seeming fait accompli which disrespected the Turkish officials involved in the negotiation process. 

    This move became a turning point in the history of Turkish-Israeli relations, which had enjoyed an upward trend since the 1990s. The two states already had good relations from 1949 when Turkey became the first Muslim-majority state to recognise Israel. After the 2008 low blow, Turkey has faced a serious issue with Israel – namely that the latter has sacrificed long-standing dialogue with Ankara for a security-orientated foreign policy.

    From the “low chair” crisis to the “Davos incident” in 2009, Turkey has always faced an Israel unwilling to establish meaningful dialogue. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration made a habit of flexing its muscles instead of talking. 

    The Mavi Marmara Incident of 2010, in which Israeli commandos attacked an international aid flotilla bound for Gaza, killing eight Turkish nationals and an American of Turkish descent, was viewed by the Turkish public and government as the pinnacle of Israel’s disrespect for Turkey. 

    A decade later, the recent incident of an Israeli couple visiting Turkey who were held on suspicion of espionage and released after a week-long arrest seems like another turning point, but this time, in a positive direction. After Mordi and Natalie Oknin reached their home in Israel, both Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Turkish President Erdogan, thanking him for his efforts to release the couple. It was the first public conversation between Erdogan and an Israeli prime minister since 2013. Bennet praised the conversation as being efficient and thoughtful. 

    While Turkey did not ask for political favours in exchange for the Oknin couple’s release, Israel can utilise this chance to foster a better dialogue with Turkey after a series of wasted opportunities in the past. 

    For their part, Turkish officials can finally establish a dialogue with their Israeli counterparts without facing the hurdle of Israel’s refusal to cooperate by securitising issues related to the Palestinians. Unlike Netanyahu, a master at adding fuel to the fire and capitalising on crises with Turkey, Bennett and his team preferred to use the Oknin episode as an opportunity to establish “normal” relations. 

    Netanyahu liked to play the role of saviour and cash in on the plight of prisoners. This was the case with Naama Issachar, an Israeli citizen jailed in Russia for drug smuggling in 2019 and Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier released from Gaza in 2011. 

    Bennett and his team have adopted a diametrically opposite path in the Oknin affair—focusing on the solution rather than seeking political leverage and accelerating efforts rather than slowing down the pace. 

    When it comes to Turkish-Israeli relations, the worst aspect of the Netanyahu era was his overwhelming dominance over the Israeli decision-making mechanism. By acting as such, he left no room for any other senior-level discussion. With the exception of Turkey’s UN representative Feridun Sinirlioglu, all official talks between Turks and Israelis since 2010 have been at a junior level, which was not enough to maintain a concrete dialogue between the two states.

    The Israeli ruling elite also has to consider the gap between it and Israeli society. A considerable percentage of the Israeli public believes that Israel should develop relations with Turkey, as surveys by Mitvim Institute have indicated since 2015. Another survey showed that Turkey is among the most popular travel destinations for Israelis. These polls reveal the gap between the derogatory government and media discourse and the realities on the ground. 

    Nevertheless, Israel can close this gap by increasing its positive initiatives and goodwill gestures towards Turkey. After the stormy Netanyahu era, this is a simple yet efficient approach. Ankara has already demonstrated its goodwill at the highest level, with Erdogan phoning his Israeli counterpart Herzog in July to congratulate him on his inauguration. The recent call between Erdogan and Bennett also signalled that Turkey is open to dialogue and diplomacy with Israel, even though Bennett is known for his hawkish rhetoric. 

    Of course, major policy differences between the two states remain. No experts view the current trajectory of relations returning to the levels of security cooperation achieved during the 1990s. Any kind of overblown optimism would soon face a reality check with the deteriorating situation in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. 

    On the other hand, Israel should not seek dialogue with Turkey only when crises erupt. Contrary to incendiary calls in the Israeli media or pro-Israeli networks calling to “boycott travel to Turkey”, Israeli leaders should avoid repeating Netanyahu’s theatrics. They should look for long-term overtures, as having normal relations with Turkey can offer more dividends for peace and stability in the region.  

    This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the TRT World website.

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