View: Realpolitik and the gradual rapprochement between Israel and Turkey

The growing bonhomie between former partners – Israel and Turkey – in recent times has come at a time when there is noticeable change and geopolitical realignments in the wider Middle East region. While these two countries are trying to reconcile after their relations collapsed (mostly) following the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, important diplomatic steps have been taken in recent months, notably with the reciprocal visits of the two foreign ministers in May and June, and that of the Israeli president to Turkey, all this year alone. This demonstrated the political will of both parties to overcome some differences and begin to rebuild ties by identifying areas of mutual interest.

As we understand, Israel and Turkey, for a good number of years, have had a solid cooperation in the political, economic and, above all, military and security fields. The deterioration in global relations, however, from mid-2010 became a major setback for Israel as it lost the lucrative defense market and a major Muslim-dominated country in the region. Moreover, the reduction in the flow of Israeli tourists to Turkey has also had a negative economic impact. Similarly, for Turkey, it has also lost (for just over a decade) an economically and technologically advanced partner – Israel – in the region. It therefore seems that the two countries have realized the importance of rekindling old ties and working collectively to promote their respective national and strategic interests, a more pragmatic choice than remaining apart.

Turkey, at the moment, was recalibrating some of its foreign policies and trying to strengthen its ties with other economic powers in the Middle East, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia (for which it voiced vitriolic criticism, particularly following the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist). This is crucial and can be seen as a pragmatic decision taken by Ankara, especially given the growing economic crisis in the country, with inflations reaching an all-time high. Ankara and the capitals of these Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have pledged to strengthen their cooperation across a broad spectrum. With such a renewed regional policy, it is very evident that Turkey is seriously looking forward to ending its regional isolation, mainly due to its aggressive foreign policy pursuits in recent years. It is in this context that Turkey has increasingly shown its interest and its willingness to bury the hatchet with Israel.

It is, indeed, an opportune time for Israel as well, given its growing political recognition and acceptance in the region, which has otherwise been hostile since its inception. Should relations restart without major roadblocks, there will certainly be political, economic and military incentives for Israel to normalize relations with Turkey. He already had his experiences of cooperation with the mentioned transcontinental country, and should not be a Herculean task to renew commitments and make up for the lost decade.

Currently, Israel is apparently looking for potential customers (in the region and beyond) for its offshore gas (discovered in December 2010), and it has even discussed a Turkey-Israel gas pipeline in recent months. Israel would like to see its exporters sell gas to Turkey, which can also serve as a gateway to Europe, a trade that could help boost its economy. As it stands, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the European Union (EU), Israel and Egypt in June this year to export Israeli-sourced gas to the ‘Europe. Despite this development, it may be difficult to see a similar (imminent) breakthrough in the export of Israeli gas to Europe via Turkey due to the unresolved disputes related to the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus, by which all gas pipeline should pass. Nevertheless, the timing of discussions between Israel and Turkey is important because the latter, on the one hand, is exploring the possibilities of diversifying its sources of energy-oil imports (to reduce dependence on Russian imports oil/energy), and Israel, on the other hand, is emerging as a key exporter of natural gas in the Middle East and is seeking its energy markets. In order to broaden its international profile, building energy partnerships has become one of Israel’s important foreign policy goals, and Turkey could be one of its clients.

Despite the delicate rapprochement, it will take some time for the two countries to resume military trade, which was once an important feature of bilateral Israeli-Turkish relations. That’s not to say the two countries wouldn’t explore the possibility of resuming such a lucrative business. Much, however, will depend on the unforeseen trajectory of ties, which the two leaders are currently working to relentlessly improve. Meanwhile, security coordination, mainly involving intelligence gathering and information sharing between the respective agencies, could be the precursor to a stronger partnership in the near future. Given the current momentum that is building, both governments are likely to intensify their commitments in this area to protect and promote both their strategic and national interests.

At the same time, as relations improve, Israel will expect Turkey to play a sort of ‘balancing act’ with Iran, with whom tensions have remained at an all-time high in recent times. time. That said, given the complex nature of Turkey-Iran relations, it remains to be seen what influence Ankara can exert on Tehran to curb the latter’s rhetoric against Israel. It could also be that Turkey’s moves towards Israel come to Iran’s dismay and create an additional wedge with the Islamic Republic. Thus, this third factor in ongoing reconciliation movements cannot be ignored.

For now, it is evident that Israel and Turkey are getting closer mainly because of strong convergences of interests on almost all fronts, including politics, security, economy and energy. By attaching more importance to the conduct of a foreign policy based on realpolitik, both sides have shown their willingness not to let their ideological or political differences hinder or impede the growth of bilateral cooperation. It is their shared geo-economic and strategic interests that apparently create an impetus to normalize Turkish-Israeli relations. Finally, given the frosty relationship for an extended period, many trust-building measures should be put in place to get the relationship back on track.

The author is Assistant Professor at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Symbiosis International (Deemed University)

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