Are there signs of a thaw between Turkey and Israel?

It has been 10 years since I received a call from a friend about Israel’s raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in the Mediterranean. On May 31, 2010, three ships carrying human rights activists from Turkey and around the world aiming to deliver humanitarian supplies to Palestinians suffering under the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip had been encircled by the latter's navy in international waters.

As soon as I heard the news, I found myself in front of the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul among a flood of protesters calling on the country to release the flotilla and allow the activists to continue on their course. I eventually began to settle down as, although I had little faith in Israel, with the whole world watching, I never considered that anything would happen to the passengers on board. There was a live broadcast rolling from the flagship, after all. So I went home and took a nap. By the time I woke up, however, it was to the shocking news that Israel's navy had hijacked the ships, killing nine human rights activists and severely wounding another, who eventually lost his life.

Turkey-Israel relations, which had already started to deteriorate after the 2008-2009 Gaza Massacre, reached their nadir after the raid. Turkey's then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the attack as “state terrorism.” Ankara immediately recalled its ambassador from Israel and, in September 2011, downgraded diplomatic ties with the country.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Erdoğan, apologizing for the incident, nothing changed and the rift between two countries deepened with the so-called Arab Spring and following counterrevolutions. Israel has continued to increase its aggression against Palestinians year-on-year, taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the chaos into which the Middle East and North Africa have been plunged.

More disagreements

In December 2015, Turkey and Israel initiated talks to restore diplomatic ties. However, disagreements on both sides remained unresolved. A reconciliation agreement over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident was announced in June 2016. By autumn, Israel and Turkey had assigned ambassadors to one another – yet this still did little to mend their six-year rift.

Israel’s support for the outlawed PKK’s Syrian wing, the YPG/PKK, in northern Syria has further agitated Turkey over the last couple of years. In the meantime, disagreements over energy resources in the Mediterranean have only fanned the flames.

Israel is a partner in the EastMed pipeline project alongside Egypt, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration. The EastMed gas club is a joint attempt to exclude Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) from taking a share of the Eastern Mediterranean's resources. Turkey’s maritime deal with Libya, signed in December 2019, declared that Turkey's sea borders stretched from Anatolia to the shores of Derna, Tobruk and Bardiya, thus ruling out the club's much desired natural gas pipeline, which foresees natural gas deliveries from the East Mediterranean to Europe, circumventing Turkey.

In addition to this issue, Turkey’s military support for Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in its fight against putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar – who is supported by a number of states, including Israel – has further upset the EastMed member states’ plans. As is evident, the GNA started to change the power dynamics in Libya since receiving Turkey's backing.

Israel and Turkey used to participate in joint military exercises and drills. Since the relationship between two countries soured, however, Israel has turned its face to Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration.

Cause for optimism

Despite all of the tensions, there has been more optimism recently about a possible thaw in Turkey-Israel relations. Some have argued this in light of the fact Israeli carrier El Al has now resumed cargo flights to Turkey. An El Al plane landed in Istanbul on May 24 for the first time since flights were halted following the Mavi Marmara incident. However, the plane is said to have arrived in Turkey only to pick up 24 tons of humanitarian aid and protective equipment for onward delivery to U.S. medical teams fighting COVID-19.

That said, there are others who say that Israel and Turkey have a number of common interests in the region. According to some, Israel is eager to sign a maritime deal with Turkey similar to that signed between Turkey and Libya’s GNA. They argue that Turkey has to do this in order to squeeze Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration into a corner. In addition, a tweet recently posted by Israel’s official account claiming that Israel is proud of its diplomatic relations with Turkey and hopes to boost these ties further is a sign that a possible deal is on the table. But this claim has been denied by Israel on social media.

On the other hand, some voices have risen in Israel regarding Syria. A Middle East Eye report quoted a senior Israeli official last month saying: “The same Iranian proxy known as Hezbollah is challenging Turkey’s soldiers in Idlib as it is challenging our soldiers in southern Syria. This is an issue of common interest, as well as energy.” Various outlets in both countries also picked up the story wishfully thinking that there would be a change in Turkey-Israel relations.

The Jerusalem Post also published an article in May bearing the title, “Israel has learned from Hezbollah’s defeat at the hands of Turkey.” The piece argued that Israel had monitored the fighting between Hezbollah’s Radwan Unit and Turkish forces in Syria’s Idlib province with great interest and learned that the elite unit found it difficult to stand up to a conventional army.

Moreover, Israel’s charge d’affairs for Turkey, Roey Gilad, wrote a piece last month for the Turkish Halimiz news site saying that Iran’s presence in Syria worked against Ankara’s interests and that Lebanon's Hezbollah group had played a dominant part in a battle in Idlib in which more than 50 Turkish soldiers lost their lives. Gilad added that Turkey and Israel did not have to agree on everything, however, that COVID-19 and other challenges might work in favor of normalizing relations in terms of trade, tourism, energy and academic cooperation. “The ball is on the Turkish side,” he wrote. The article has been discussed on various websites, with an article on the Jerusalem Post commenting, “A new Israeli foreign minister, Turkey’s battles in Idlib against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime and a convergence of necessity for dialogue in Syria and even the Mediterranean could point to a new leaf in Israel-Turkey relations, after a decade of difficulties.”

A new government in Israel

Israel’s hard-won unity government was sworn in last month following a deal made by rivals Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, ending a deadlock that has worn on for more than 500 days. The new government, which replaces hardliner and Netanyahu-supporter Naftali Bennett with Gantz as Israel’s minister of defense, might be seen as a sign for a new era by the optimists in regard to Turkey-Israel relations.

But, ironically, Gabi Ashkenazi, the new minister of foreign affairs of Israel, was the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief-of-staff when Israel raided the Mavi Marmara flotilla. The optimists miss that Turkey takes a dim view of Ashkenazi after what happened in 2010, although a restoration agreement was signed. In 2012, a Turkish prosecuted wanted Ashkenazi and three more IDF chiefs to be jailed for the flotilla killings.

Is annexation allowed?

However, Netanyahu is still the prime minister of Israel, and apparently, Erdoğan doesn’t believe that relations can normalize as long as he stays at the helm of Israeli politics. The Turkish president harshly criticized Israel's plans to illegally annex half of the West Bank in an address last month for Ramadan Bayram, also known as Eid al-Fitr, stating that a new occupation and annexation project, which threatened Palestinian sovereignty, was contrary to international law. Erdoğan vowed he would not allow the transfer of “Palestinian land to anyone.”

Stating that Turkey was the only voice defending Palestinians today, Erdoğan added, “Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are holy to three religions and a red line for Muslims all over in the world.” The Turkish president thus made it clear that Ankara’s overall stance toward Israel has not changed.

Since Donald Trump's administration declared that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017, Turkey has worked hard to condemn the move in the U.N. General Assembly.

A majority of the U.N. rebuked the U.S. stance, while when protests broke out on the Gaza border in which many civilians were killed by Israeli forces, Erdoğan accused Tel Aviv of “genocide” and of acting like a “terrorist state.” Turkey declared a three-day period of national morning, expelling the Israeli ambassador and withdrawing its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultations. There has been no ambassador in either capital since May 2018.

Not only this, but Israel’s controversial "Jewish nation-state law," which granted the de-facto apartheid regime's discriminatory policies a legal basis and passed in the Knesset in 2018, as well as the U.S.' recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel in 2019, are both moves that drew a huge reaction from Turkey. More recently, at the very beginning of 2020, when Trump unveiled his “Deal of the Century” plan, Turkey's criticism was made loud and clear. Erdoğan duly commented that the proposal was not a peace plan, but an occupation project.

At the opening of his Likud faction’s meeting in the Knesset last week, Netanyahu said there had never been a better time in the country’s history to annex these areas. Given the move would be coordinated with Washington, in accordance with Trump’s plan, which endorsed extending Israeli sovereignty over roughly 30% of the West Bank, Netanyahu may think that he has to finish the job before the U.S. presidential elections. Most likely, he will not be able to get a better chance than the one afforded by Trump if the Democrats win.

I would put money on the fact President Erdoğan will never pave the way for a normalization of ties with Israel unless Israel abandons its occupation plans – and that is certainly not going to happen at a time in which Israel is closing in on its decadeslong dream. I can assure you that the optimists both in Turkey and Israel who suggest that there is a thaw between the two countries are daydreaming and trying to manipulate public opinion in vain. It is impossible.