By Liz Moran
In August 2022, breaking news informed of Türkiye and Israel’s fully restored diplomatic relations. The countries had first broken up their diplomatic relations in 2010, when Turkish activists tried to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza strip, causing a deadly confrontation between the activists and Israeli commandos. After a year of reconciliation (2016-2017), relations would deteriorate again when the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The diplomatic relations between both countries, hence, have been a story of ups and downs during the last decade.
Starting timidly, Türkiye and Israel already gave the first signs of rapprochement in July 2021, when presidents agreed to work towards improving their strained relations after a phone call. Such a shift toward closer relations coincided with the replacement of Benjamin Netanyahu with Naftali Bennett as prime minister of Israel. Since then, relations progressively warmed until reaching a climax in August.
National public figures have not hesitated to frame the event in a positive light. For instance, Prime Minister Yair Lapid stated that the restored relations would contribute to deepening bilateral ties and strengthening regional stability. On the other hand, the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, tweeted that the renewal of full diplomatic relations would encourage greater economic relations, mutual tourism, and friendship between the Israeli and Turkish peoples. However, what are the underlying interests behind Ankara’s and Jerusalem’s decisions?
Putting Türkiye’s interests in the spotlight
After years of no progress in its candidature for the EU, Türkiye might be in search for new allies. Türkiye had already started repairing ties with estranged rivals in 2020 by launching a rapprochement strategy with Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Now, the attractiveness of Israel as another new trade partner and ally in the region possibly increased after the former found natural gas on its coasts and announced plans to build an East Mediterranean natural gas pipeline are on the table -with backing from the US-. With energy and natural gas now a top priority on the EU agenda after the Ukraine conflict, Ankara has expressed its desire to partner with Israel in a project that would carry Israeli natural gas to Türkiye and Europe.
It is not only Türkiye’s dependency that pushes the country to seek a partnership with Israel in the energy sector. With inflation levels that have risen to more than 70% and a profound economic crisis that haunts the country, Türkiye sees itself in need to gradually mend fences across the region in order to obtain new deals and investments. Especially, when presidential elections are just one year away. Having identified a common interest, Erdogan stated in March that Türkiye was ready to cooperate with Israel in the energy sector.
Security factors also help explain Ankara’s willingness to form bonds with Israel. First, Türkiye believes that the new-born alliance might prompt Jewish advocacy organizations to help Türkiye obtain F-16 fighters. Second, during the years of Israel-Türkiye tension, Israel’s relations with Cyprus and Greece improved dramatically. In the midst of increasing Greece-Türkiye tensions over an airspace conflict, it is not in Türkiye’s interest for Israel to further align itself with Greece and Cyprus because of their own disputes.
What about Israeli interests?
For Israel, it is not only in its benefit to exploit its natural gas reserves and build a pipeline to Europe, especially now that Europe finds itself in an energy crisis. Geopolitical and security considerations have also played a role. For Israel, Türkiye can act as a balancing power in a region they consider threatened by Iran. Restored relations with Türkiye could mean intelligence collaboration to monitor Iran. Moreover, closer relations with Türkiye brings hope for Israel that the former will put pressure on Hamas, as Israel has accused Ankara of financing the organization.
Finally, restored relations with Türkiye is in line with Israel’s attempts to establish relations with other countries in the Middle East.
What does this mean for the region?
Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and hence, to normalize relations with the country. The Abraham Accords facilitated the normalization of relations between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. After the celebration of the Accords, Türkiye showed its discontentment with such move, threatening to suspend ties with UAE. However, Turkey has now become the latest country to jump on the boat of normalizing ties with Israel. Despite Turkish reassurance that restored relations with Israel will not diminish Turkish support for the Palestinian cause, it is yet to see how the normalization of Arab countries’ ties with Israel, and now Türkiye, will affect the Palestinian cause and the stability of the region.
Unexpected consequences of the Ukrainian war, such as food insecurity in Egypt or overall natural gas supply disruption, might serve as a further incentive to build closer relations between Arab countries, Türkiye, and Israel in the region, as well as to cooperate in areas of mutual interests. Egypt, the UAE, and Israel, for instance, already gathered for the first time in March 2022 to discuss energy, market stability and food security.