Turkey and Israel Are Normalizing Ties, But Tensions Remain

YouWednesday’s announcement by srael, Turkey that they will reopen diplomatic relations and appoint their ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv was made Wednesday. Although the two countries have spent years at odds over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and other contentious issues, Turkey is grappling with an inflation rate above 70% and is seeking foreign investment. For its part, Israel views Turkey as a strong player that can counterbalance Iran’s influence in the region.

“A dialogue process began with Israel after the new government took office,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in an apparent reference to Israel’s longest-serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who left office in June 2021. “The appointment of ambassadors was among the steps we said we would take to normalize relations.”

In 2018, Israel and Turkey expelled their respective ambassadors from each other’s countries after the U.S. under former President Donald Trump moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a part of which Palestinians want as their future capital—kicking off deadly confrontations along the Israel-Gaza border. Protests against the move of Israel’s embassy resulted in at least 100 deaths among Palestinians.

But that wasn’t the first time tensions flared between Turkey and Israel. After Israeli commandos attacked an aid flotilla carrying Turkish humanitarian supplies, the Israelis withdrew their diplomats from Ankara & Tel Aviv in 2010. At least 10 pro-Palestinian activists were killed. The protestors had intended to break Israel’s now 15-year blockade of Gaza and deliver supplies. Israel paid compensation of $20 million to families of victims. Turkey has dropped criminal charges against Israeli officers. The payment had led to full diplomatic relations between the two countries, which continued until 2018’s developments.

“Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated periodically over the last 15 years in particular—partially due to Israeli occupation violence against the Palestinians,” says H.A. Hellyer, who is not a resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Turkey said that their support for Palestinians would not be affected by the new normalization. “As we have always said, we will continue to defend the rights of Palestinians,” Çavuşoğlu said.

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Turkey has a unique significance because of its historic role as the country with Muslim majority that established diplomatic ties to Israel in 1949. It is now the third such country that works towards normalizing relations with Israel, following similar efforts by Morocco, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2002, the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative reached consensus that Arab countries would normalize relations only with Israel once it had withdrawn from the occupied territories. A Palestinian state was created with East Jerusalem its capital and an equitable solution was found for Palestinian refugees. “The U.A.E and Bahrain’s normalization agreement [without those conditions being met] shattered that consensus,” says Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Turkey is more critical than other countries who have recently normalized their relations with Israel about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Over the last decade or two, Turkey has emerged as a “champion of the Palestinian cause at a moment when the Arab voice on the Palestinian issue has been in decline,” Elgindy says. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gone as far as referring to Israel as an “apartheid” and “terrorist” state.

Despite Erdogan’s fiery criticism of Israel, he made an official visit to the country early in his tenure in 2005. Since Netanyahu’s departure, Erdoğan has also expressed a desire to ship Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey. And in recent months, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey in March and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu visited Israel in May. Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid also visited Ankara in June.

“Regardless of the anti-Israel rhetoric, Ankara clearly identifies a deep strategic interest in maintaining ties with Israel, and the restoration of diplomatic ties on the level of ambassadors is hardly surprising in that regard,” Hellyer says. “It won’t mean that Ankara will diminish its policies in support of the Palestinians, but Israeli-Turkish relations have a life of their own separate from that.”

Given the two countries’ rocky history in recent years, it’s hardly impossible that future tensions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could hinder normalization. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that this is going to be smooth sailing, and they’re all going to hug and make up and everything’s gonna be hunky dory. There’s always the potential in the Palestinian arena that something will happen that will strain relations again—that wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Elgindy says.

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