Since Israeli President Isaac Herzog landed in Ankara on March 9 to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan –– the first visit to the country by an Israeli head of state since 2007 –– the latest Israeli violence in Jerusalem has caused a cooling of the fledgling rapprochement process that had begun between Turkey and Israel.
In an April 17 tweet, Erdogan condemned the “interventions and provocations” of Israeli riot police in the compound of the al-Aqsa Mosque, which left at least 152 people injured.
“During our call, I told Mr. Abbas [President of the State of Palestine] that I strongly condemned Israel’s intervention on worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque and that we will stand against provocations and threats to its status or spirit,” Erdogan said on Twitter.
“Turkey always stands with Palestine.”
“Turkey always stands with Palestine,” he added.
Over the past two decades, the Palestinian conflict has been the subject of many heated exchanges between Turkey and Israel, preventing an official rapprochement. In 2010, an Israeli raid against the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to circumvent the Israeli blockade on besieged Gaza, killed ten mainly Turkish civilians, causing the freezing of relations between the two countries.
After an initial reconciliation in a 2016 agreement that restored full diplomatic ties, including the return of their ambassadors, the Great March of Return protest in Gaza put a further strain on Israeli-Turkish relations. In 2018, after Israeli forces killed at least 200 Palestinians demanding to return to their displaced lands and protesting the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, the Turkish government ordered Israel’s ambassador to leave the country.
Despite Turkey and Israel’s tense political relations, which are highly dependent on regional developments, trade between the two countries has always been considerable, which has facilitated their first step towards rapprochement. In recent years, the volume of trade, especially energy resources, has increased steadily, reaching a record $6.6 billion last year.
Importing Israeli natural gas to Europe via Turkey has been the subject of numerous discussions regarding a potential gas pipeline project between the two countries. A gas pipeline initiative has become all the more important for European leaders since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Europe seeks to reduce its dependency on Russian energy.
With this in mind, Erdogan called the Israeli president’s March visit “historic” and a “turning point” in Turkish-Israeli relations, and announced that his country was ready to cooperate in the energy sector. As the anniversary of the Turkish Republic and the June 2023 elections approach, this rapprochement comes at the right time.
“The state of the Turkish economy is not good at all,” Francesco Siccardi, a senior program manager at Carnegie Europe, told Inside Arabia. “The foreign policy of the past is no longer financially viable. The country has been particularly isolated in recent years, making the prospects for economic recovery more difficult.”
Erdogan called the Israeli president’s March visit “historic” and a “turning point” in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Moreover, he added, “As the elections approach, Erdogan is looking for new economic and political partners, and Israel seems to be a prime option for the country.”
For its part, Israel has taken advantage of the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 to normalize its relations with several countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, according to Professor Michaël Tanchum, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI) and an associate senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
From a broader Middle Eastern perspective, he suggested that “the deepening strategic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) following the 2020 Abraham Accords, combined with Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE and Egypt, Israel-Turkey relations could drive a geopolitical reconfiguration of the region.”
The Hebrew state has taken a pragmatic approach to its rapprochement with Turkey and wants the latter to drop its support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas. Turkey has fostered a close relationship with Hamas, which the Israeli state considers a terrorist organization. Not only does Turkey provide Hamas with logistical and financial support, but it regularly receives and hosts senior Hamas officials. Nevertheless, despite these differences that both countries recognize in the development of their relationship, they have managed to align themselves on many international issues, according to Tanchum.
Turkey has fostered a close relationship with Hamas.
“Both countries acted in parallel to help Azerbaijan achieve victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and any level of restoration of security cooperation alters the Middle East’s strategic architecture, acting as a constraint on Iranian geopolitical ambitions,” he said.
With respect to the war in Ukraine, Turkey and Israel share similar strategic positions marked by particularly strong economic and geopolitical ties with Russia, and important historical, commercial, and strategic ties with Ukraine. It is therefore not surprising to see the two countries working together as mediators to conclude peace negotiations with Russia.
Even if the renewed tensions between Palestinians and Israelis slow down the dynamics of rapprochement between the two countries, they should be able to maintain a form of diplomatic civility based on common interests.
“At present and until the elections, there is no reason to believe that Erdogan will change his mind about Israel [or] break his rapprochement,” Siccardi told Inside Arabia. “The engine of his rapprochement is mainly economic, to improve the situation of the country. In the next few months, we should [also] see a similar trend of rapprochement between Turkey and its neighbors, through more investment, trade, and normalization of relations.”