In a move that came as a pleasant surprise, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called new Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog on Monday to congratulate him on his new position, with the call reportedly lasting forty minutes and both sides emphasizing the importance of Israeli-Turkish ties. The relationship between the two countries has been on a roller coaster for over a decade, to say the least, with frequent verbal broadsides between the leaders and ambassadors constantly withdrawn, and the congratulatory call from Erdogan is being viewed in some quarters as an optimistic harbinger of a steadier relationship to come. While each has some incentives to improve on the current state of affairs, there is far more cause for pessimism than optimism, primarily because Israeli interests have shifted over the past decade while Turkey’s pursuit of Jerusalem is not actually about Israel itself.
When relations between Israel and Turkey began to seriously deteriorate in the late aughts, with Erdogan famously berating Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009 and the Mavi Marmara incident coming a year and a half later, Israel was still counting on Turkey on a number of fronts. The Israeli Air Force was accustomed to using Turkey’s vaster airspace for training maneuvers, Israel was hoping for Turkish buy-in for greater Israeli participation within NATO, and Israeli-Turkish cooperation on energy and a natural gas pipeline seemed the most viable option for exporting new Israeli offshore gas discoveries. The close ties between the Israeli and Turkish militaries created an institutional legacy that seeped beyond the armed forces, and Israel was also eager to capitalize on its only formal diplomatic relations with a Muslim-majority country in the Middle East that was not a direct neighbor. There was a U.S. angle to this as well, since U.S.-Turkey relations had recovered from the immediate aftermath of Turkey’s decision not to allow the U.S. to launch the Iraq War from Incirlik Airbase, and it was in Israel’s interest to keep good relations with another American regional partner.
Today, almost none of these variables still holds true. After being denied access to Turkish airspace, the IAF sought other venues for training and has largely replaced its reliance on Turkey with Greek airspace instead. This past April, Israel participated in a large air force exercise in Greece alongside the U.S., France, Canada, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates, which is the type of joint exercise that in years past would have been centered on Turkey instead. Israel also no longer looks to Ankara to support a greater Israeli role within NATO because Turkish tensions with NATO are at an all-time high over a variety of issues, most pressingly Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems that are specifically designed by Russia to counter NATO fighter jets. The fallout within NATO is even more acute when it comes to the U.S., where the deterioration in relations with Turkey has been precipitous, including the imposition of sanctions over the S-400 purchase. As a result, it is difficult to envision President Biden pushing Israel and Turkey to get over their differences in the same manner that President Obama did when he orchestrated the Ben Gurion tarmac call between Erdogan and Binyamin Netanyahu in 2013.
If there is an area where Israeli interests have shifted the most, it is on energy. The varying levels of contretemps between Israel and Turkey led Israel to turn to Greece militarily but also in the energy sphere, beginning with a three-way deal between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to cooperate on natural gas issues and leading to a 2020 deal to build an undersea gas pipeline through the countries’ maritime territory to Europe. The three also formed the East Mediterranean Gas Forum along with Egypt, Jordan, and Italy, effectively as a way to counter Turkish energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. The greatest driver of potential genuine reconciliation between Israel and Turkey was long seen to be energy, but that is no longer the case, leaving Israel with a desire to mend ties with Turkey but not viewing it as being as critical as it once did.
From Turkey’s end, the reasons for its rupture with Israel have not fundamentally changed. Turkey still views itself as the potential leader of a revisionist Sunni bloc that is supportive of political Islam and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements, and harsh criticism of Israel and defense of the Palestinians is a large part of Turkey’s geopolitical positioning. The Palestinian cause is politically popular in Turkey, and bashing Israel has almost no political downside given that secular Turkish nationalists are also not big fans of Israel or Zionism. The sense that Turkey is being encircled and isolated by the Israel-Greece-Cyrpus tripartite partnership is strong, and it does not help matters that Greece and Cyprus are Turkey’s traditional regional foes.
What has changed, however, is Turkey’s downward trajectory. Turkey’s economy is on a multiyear slide, its regional Cold War where it is one side with Qatar in opposition to the Saudi-UAE-Egypt bloc is also suffering defeat, its relations with the U.S. and the European Union are in tatters, and Erdogan is starting to feel the political and electoral pressure at home. This has led in recent months to reconciliation efforts with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel, with varying degrees of success. Turkey does not care about the bilateral relationship with Israel per se as much as it cares about breaking out of what Erdogan adviser Ibrahim Kalin infamously dubbed “precious isolation” a few years ago, which was the notion that Turkey was on the right side of history and regional trends and was willing to pay the short-term diplomatic consequences in order to reap long-term vindication. With the vindication and the pay-off no longer appearing on the horizon, reaching out to Israel is part of the wider effort to reintegrate back into the region.
The U.S. is important here as well, since similar to other regional states, Turkey views improved relations with Israel as a key to improved standing with Washington. For reasons that belie complete understanding but perhaps lie in the fact that figures such as Mike Flynn and Rudy Giuliani were effectively lobbying on the Turkish government’s behalf, the Trump administration took a very soft touch with Turkey and seemed not to care that its relationship with Israel was turning increasingly hostile. The Biden administration has so far not shown the same predilection, and part of Erdogan’s strategy for avoiding the consequences of Turkish policy that has run counter to U.S. interests and in some cases U.S. law is to draw closer to Israel. It is dubious whether this will work, but it is in line with a widespread Turkish belief that Israel controls Washington and thus explains the outreach to Herzog and the Turkish readout of the call extolling shared Israeli-Turkish interests and cooperation.
Nobody should expect Israel and Turkey to go back to the status quo ante of the 1990s or early 2000s. While there is certainly room to improve the relationship in a number of spheres, Israel has moved on and Turkey is more interested in the optics of better ties with Israel than in the ties themselves.