Israel, Turkey Relations Have Been on a Roller Coaster for 2 Decades
Israeli commandos boarded the MV Mavi Marmara passenger ship, which was owned by the Turkish nongovernmental IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, early on the morning of May 31, 2010, in international waters off the coast of Gaza. The Mavi Marmara was part of a Gaza Freedom Flotilla meant to break through Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and carried over 600 passengers. By lunchtime, nine of those passengers – all Turkish citizens – were dead, and relations between Israel and Turkey, which had already been in decline for several years, were in complete shambles.
On Wednesday, after two decades of on-again-off-again relations, Israel and Turkey announced that they will again exchange ambassadors following an agreement to restore full diplomatic ties. The decision announced on Wednesday comes after a phone conversation between Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which followed from understandings reached during Lapid’s recent visit to Turkey, according to a statement from Lapid’s office.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict has informed the Israel-Turkey relationship since the beginning and has fomented several crises, before and after the Mavi Marmara incident. Israel and Turkey exchanged ambassadors in 1992, as Israel and the Palestinians showed signs of progress in the peace process and were close regional allies. But things began to go downhill at the end of 2008 with Israel’s launch of Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, in response to an increase of Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel.
The Turkish government harshly condemned Israel for the Gaza conflict and Erdoğan, its then-prime minister, brought his country’s support for the Palestinians to a panel discussion about the conflict at the Davos Economic Forum less than two weeks after the cross-border conflict. During the panel discussion, which included then-President Shimon Peres as Israel’s only defender, Erdoğan was cut short by the moderator, leading to an angry and ugly exchange.
“When it comes to killing you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you killed children on the beaches,” Erdoğan said to Peres after complaining that the Israeli president spoke for 24 minutes and he got only half of that time for his own statements. Peres, in response, said that Turkey would have reacted the same way had rockets been falling on Istanbul.
Months later, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal made an official visit to Turkey, further highlighting Turkey’s support for Gaza and the terrorist group that runs it. And after a popular Turkish soap opera portrayed Israel’s Mossad as spying on Turkey and kidnapping Turkish babies, Israel’s Foreign Ministry summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Israel for a dressing down.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon’s meeting with Turkish Ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oğuz Çelikkol was less a reprimand and more a public shaming, with Ayalon refusing to shake the diplomat’s hand and seating him on a sofa that was pointedly lower than the chair on which Ayalon was sitting, while displaying only an Israeli flag on the table between them.
“The important thing is that they see he’s sitting lower and we’re up high and that there’s only one flag, and you see we’re not smiling,” Ayalon told the cameramen in the room, it was widely reported.
Four months later came the Mavi Marmara incident, after which Turkey froze its diplomatic ties with Israel, demanding an apology and compensation paid to the families of the victims, which rose to 10 some four years after the incident when another passenger died of the wounds he sustained during the raid.
In March 2013, then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a visit by then US President Barack Obama called Erdoğan to apologize for the incident and say that Israel would compensate the victims. It still took three years for Turkey and Israel to approve a reconciliation agreement and again exchange ambassadors. The agreement included a Turkish law to cancel any claims against Israeli soldiers involved in the Mavi Marmara incident and the transfer of $20 million from Israel to the victims.
But in 2018, both countries again recalled their ambassadors after the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and several Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces during weekly demonstrations, termed the Great March of Return, on the Gaza border.
Relations between Israel and Turkey reached another low during the war in Gaza in May 2021, when Erdoğan called Israel’s actions in Gaza “genocide” and compared them to “Hitler’s barbarism.”
Agreements that Israel has signed in recent years have served to alienate Turkey in the region. One such agreement is for the EastMed natural gas pipeline between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, a project which has since stalled. Other agreements came in the framework of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan.
A shift began last year when Erdoğan reached out to newly named Israeli President Isaac Herzog with a phone conversation, part of a nascent reconciliation process to repair ties.
Herzog visited Turkey in March, where he was given an elaborate reception. And in May, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met with his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid in Jerusalem, the first visit by a senior Turkish official to Israel in 15 years.
Çavuşoğlu said during that meeting that renewed relations between Turkey and Israel could influence the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “We believe that normalization of our ties will also have a positive impact on the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Turkey is ready to take responsibility to continue the efforts toward dialogue,” Çavuşoğlu said.
Erdoğan is trying to thaw relations with several countries, including Israel and the US, to attract foreign investment in response to an economic crisis that has hurt his poll numbers a year before national elections.
Earlier this month, Israel reopened its economic and trade office in Turkey, just weeks after the two countries signed the outline of a civilian aviation agreement, set to replace the current accord dating back to 1951.
Still, Turkey is home to several senior Hamas officials and Erdoğan, a vociferous supporter of the Palestinians, continues to maintain a close relationship with Hamas. Israel has accused Hamas of using Turkey as a base to plan attacks against Israel.
On Wednesday, Herzog said in a statement: “I commend the renewal of full diplomatic relations with Turkey – an important development that we’ve been leading for the past year, which will encourage greater economic relations, mutual tourism, and friendship between the Israeli and Turkish peoples. Good neighborly relations and the spirit of partnership in the Middle East are important for us all. Members of all faiths – Muslims, Jews, and Christians – can and must live together in peace.”