Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigns on behalf of AKP candidates prior to last week's local elections. (Photo: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)

Israeli-Turkish Relations Appear to be Thawing

Ankara’s increasing isolation believed behind the Turkish thaw

A phone call from Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, represents a subtle but clear sign of improvement in the two Mediterranean states’ diplomacy. The warming in relations between the erstwhile allies follows a suicide bombing in Istanbul last week which killed three Israelis and an Iranian citizen and injured 11 other people. Responsibility for the blast was attributed by Turkey to the Islamic State (ISIS).

Israel’s Foreign Ministry chief Dore Gold praised the conduct of the Turkish officials who assisted in the evacuation of Israeli tourists and in the repatriation of the three casualties. “It is clear that the Turks went above and beyond to coordinate with Israel,” Gold said on Israeli Army Radio.

During the presidential conversation Rivlin thanked Erdogan for the condolences he had issued to Israel and for the assistance from the Turkish authorities. The communication is the highest level of interaction between the two governments in a number of years. The goodwill gesture comes as part of a Turkish effort to garner allies in the region following its increasing isolation, analysts say.

Diplomacy between the two states has improved recently but still has a long way to go, Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Media Line. “The attack in recent days in Istanbul has created a closer atmosphere, it’s certainly warmer, but it does not remove in anyway the real obstacles that we have with the Turks in the context of reconciliation and normalization,” Nahshon said.

The spokesperson would not go into further detail about what the obstacles to closer cooperation were as he said they were “part of the ongoing negotiations.” In December of 2015 it was revealed that Israel and Turkey had entered into negotiations in an effort to restore diplomatic relations.

Turkey was the first majority Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel and the two were regional allies for many years, partly out of a sense of their outsider status as non-Arab states living in the Middle East. Under the leadership of Erdogan (from 2003 onwards) this dynamic gradually changed, as Turkey pivoted from being a secular-state towards a more Islamists orientation.
Criticism and harsh rhetoric from Erdogan angered Israel and cooled the partnership but it was the Mavi Marmara incident which severed diplomatic relations between the two states. Nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli naval commandoes in 2010 when their vessel, the MV Mavi Marmara, was boarded as it attempted to breach the blockade Israel maintains around the Gaza Strip. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan for the incident three years later.

Exactly how restoration of full diplomatic relations is made and the payment of compensation money to the families of those killed on the Marmara are two of the obstacles preventing the warming of relations going further, Eran Lerman, from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line. Turkish demands that the blockade of Gaza end – something Israel is highly unlikely to ever concede to – and Israeli objections to members of Hamas operating on Turkish soil, represent the third and fourth impediments, he said.

But despite all that, Turkey appears to be demonstrating efforts to make good. There’s a very clear reason for that, Lerman suggested. “Turkey has come up against the very dramatic reality that it is in direct friction with Putin’s Russia and that it actually needs to build up normal relations with Europe and the West.” Israel too is seen as a potential ally now.  As a result, Turkey is pushing for improved relations more insistently than Israel, Ofer Israeli, an international security policy expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told The Media Line. “The Turkish foreign position is very bad right now especially after the Russian involvement in Syria and the Turkish attack on the Russian jet,” Israeli argued.

Following the Arab Spring Turkey’s president has realized his nation’s position is weaker than he previously believed and this has him working to put aside old feuds, Israeli explained. Egypt, Russia, Israel, and several of the Gulf Arab states were once counted as allies by Turkey but are no longer. For Israel this presents an opportunity. “This is the right moment for Israel to take a step towards Turkey. Now they are in a weak position and we can get more (in negotiations) now than in the future,” Israeli noted.

It is possible that this is the pragmatic direction the Israeli government will take, as it too is feeling increasingly isolated these days.

An improvement is certainly likely Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “The relations are very unlikely to return to what they were in the 1990s, but normalization of relations to what they were just prior to the Marmara (is possible).”

Such a level of cooperation might be all the two states can hope for given that they are living in a particularly turbulent region of the world. Given that both are important players in the Middle East, some friction is to be expected. “Israel and Turkey are both regional powers, as such they do have shared interests, but also areas of competition,” Lindenstrauss concluded.

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