Diplomats the world over blinked in disbelief on Tuesday, July 13 when the news broke that the previous evening Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had phoned Israel’s newly elected president, Isaac Herzog, to offer his congratulations. The surprise was all the greater when it emerged that the call between the two presidents had lasted 40 minutes.
For the past thirteen years relations between Turkey and Israel had been – to say the least – rancorous. As self-proclaimed champion of the Sunni Muslim world in general, and the Palestinian cause in particular, Erdogan had lost no opportunity to castigate, censure and berate Israel. His ire was especially roused by Israel’s incursion into Gaza in 2008 in its effort to stop Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately into the country. It culminated in his venomous attack on Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, at the Davos conference in January 2009. The Mavi Marmara affair in 2010 – categorized by Erdogan as an armed Israeli attack on a humanitarian convoy, but about which much remains to be explained – soured relations between Turkey and Israel for six years. Diplomatic ties were restored only in 2016. Two years later, in 2018, when the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel, and Israel followed suit.
The landmark Abraham Accords were perceived by Turkey as an overwhelmingly negative development. Erdoğan condemned the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for abandoning the Palestinian cause, and threatened to suspend diplomatic ties although he never quite got round to doing so.
Thirteen years of sour Turco-Israeli relations – and yet trade between the two nations grew exponentially over the period, quite regardless of the political dissensions. In 2008 bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel stood at $3.4bn. Year-on-year expansion followed, and by 2020 it had doubled to a record $6.8 bn.
Moreover the thirteen lean years arose on the foundation of 50 years of friendship, cooperation and flourishing trade. In March 1949 Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel. Cooperation grew between the two nations. Over the years trade and tourism boomed. Before the end of the century the Israel Air Force was practicing maneuvers in Turkish airspace and Israeli technicians were modernizing Turkish combat jets. Projects involving collaboration in high-tech and in water sharing were developed. In May 2005 Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Israel. In November 2007, four months after being elected President of Israel, Shimon Peres visited Turkey for three days and addressed its Grand National Assembly – perhaps the high point in Turco-Israeli relations. They then unraveled pretty swiftly.
By the fall of 2020 Turkey’s international standing was in the doldrums. The US presidential election was in full swing. Trump may have turned a blind eye to Erdogan’s anti-Kurd land grab in northern Syria, but Biden had expressed his sympathy for the Kurds. Even Trump had drawn the line at Turkey, a member of NATO, acquiring the US’s state-of-the-art multi-purpose F-35 fighter aircraft, while already purchasing the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system designed specifically to destroy aircraft like the F-35. Trump ejected him from the F-35 program and imposed sanctions. Biden, long opposed to Erdogan’s power-grabbing activities in Syria, would certainly not reverse that.
Neither Trump nor Biden favored Erdogan’s military interventions in Libya or in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, both pretty obviously designed to extend Turkish influence in the region. Erdogan had also attracted the displeasure of the EU by continuing to explore for gas in what is internationally recognized as Cypriot waters. After months of acrimonious exchanges, in December 2020 the EU actually imposed targeted sanctions on Turkey.
Turkey’s relations with Egypt had been frozen solid ever since 2013, when Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Erdogan, a life-long adherent of the Brotherhood, expelled Egypt’s ambassador, and Sisi reciprocated.
Erdogan and his advisers must have realized that a reassessment of tactics was called for, if he was to achieve his strategic objective of extending and stabilizing Turkey’s power base across the Middle East. Out of what must have been a root and branch analysis came a plan to address the problem – Turkey would embark on a charm offensive, involving an apparent “rebooting” of relationships with one-time enemies, opponents or unfriendly states, including Israel.
On December 9, 2020, after a gap of two years, Turkey appointed a new ambassador to Israel, albeit one with a track record of anti-Israel sentiment. Then in a press conference on Christmas Day, December 25, Erdogan declared that Turkey’s intelligence relations with Israel had “not stopped; they continue”, and that “our heart desires that we can move our relations with them to a better point.”
Israel treated the developments warily. The media reported that at a meeting held on December 30, Israel’s then-foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi decided to send “quiet feelers” to Ankara to assess how much weight to attach to them. It is difficult also to determine whether there is any truth in media rumors that the Turkish intelligence service had been holding secret talks with Israeli officials about normalizing relations.
Then came the Erdogan-Herzog phone conversation. It occurred, commented the Atlantic Council, against a backdrop of a notable decrease In Turkey of the anti-Israel rhetoric usually spouted by the state’s elites, feeding conspiracy theories and antisemitism. Additionally, the Atlantic Council has noted the recent appearance of many news articles supporting the need for reconciliation. “These are important signs,” it comments, “that create a positive atmosphere, similar to the one that existed around the time of the 2016 normalization deal” [following the Mavi Marmara affair].
Official accounts of the presidential conversation report the leaders agreeing on the importance of ties between Israel and Turkey, and the great potential for cooperation in many fields, in particular energy, tourism and technology. They agreed also to maintain contact and ongoing dialogue despite differences of opinion, “with the goal of making positive steps toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will also contribute to the improvement of Israeli-Turkish relations.”
Is this the renewal of a beautiful Turco-Israeli friendship, or an astute move by Erdogan to further his political ambitions? It could be both. To reap the potential benefits and sidestep the potential hazards, Israel will need to proceed with caution.