Last month I wrote about the systemic pressures that might cause Israel and Turkey to reconcile and resume their history of military and diplomatic cooperation. Nimrod Goren has an op-ed today in Haaretz assessing Israel-Turkey ties and arguing – similarly to me – that the two countries have a bevy of shared interests that should theoretically provide a good opportunity for them to get over their feud. I am obviously sympathetic to this argument and hopeful that it will indeed occur, but this is a good place to assess some different theories about what makes states cooperate and what it means for Turkey and Israel.
Political scientists tend to focus on the larger structural forces that shape states’ foreign policies. In the case of Israel and Turkey, the two have a shared interest in balancing against Iran. A nuclear Iran immediately upsets the balance of power in the region and while it evidently presents Israel with the larger threat, Turkey and Iran are in many ways natural rivals. Despite Turkey’s seemingly lackadaisical approach to preventing a nuclear Iran, my hunch is that their softer public stance is a result of Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy and that behind the scenes they are not eager to see Iran become a nuclear power. On Syria as well, Israel and Turkey both have an interest in making sure that the country does not explode across their borders, and Turkey in particular does not want to see Syria’s Kurds attempt to break away and join up with Kurdish populations in Turkey and Iraq. Goren quotes Tarık Oğuzlu as believing that realpolitik will bring Turkey and Israel closer together, and as anyone who read my guest post on Steven Cook’s blog knows, I agree with this analysis of the geopolitical environment.
There is another strain within international relations, however, and this one is the type of analysis that one almost always sees in the press, which is to focus on individuals rather than the larger system. Read nearly any news analysis in a prominent newspaper or current events magazine and there is almost always an outsized focus on the personalities involved, whether it is a breakdown of Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship and how this drives the U.S.-Israeli relationship or how U Thein Sein’s helicopter tour of his flooded boyhood village turned him into a reformer. Looking at it from this perspective, Israel and Turkey are nowhere close to mending their differences. Both countries are led by nationalist leaders who despise each other and make their feelings perfectly clear, and waste no chance to demonize each other’s respective states. Erdoğan’s latest gem is to accuse Israel of attempted genocide during its recent air strikes in Gaza, while Netanyahu and members of his cabinet like Avigdor Lieberman go entirely overboard and describe Turkey’s government as radical Islamic extremist supporters of terror. Viewed in this light, Israel and Turkey will never make up, and as each side goes tit-for-tat in the war of words, the possibility of reconciliation becomes more remote.
I am a big fan of structural explanations for how the world works. But in this case I worry that structural forces are not enough. Even taking into consideration Israel’s mistrust of any foreign government sympathetic to Hamas and Turkey’s bid to increase its soft power in the Middle East, Israel and Turkey’s spat cannot be explained by structure alone. I think it is crucial for them to get over their differences for a host of reasons, but I am currently bearish on it actually happening.