international analysis and commentary

The cold war between Turkey and Israel


For many decades, the relationship between Israel and Turkey was a cornerstone of regional stability in the Near East. Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel in March 1949, and since then the two states have developed strong military, diplomatic and strategic cooperation. This article focuses on the Israeli perception of what can be termed a “cold war” between Ankara and Tel Aviv, which started during the 2008 Gaza war and degenerated into an open diplomatic conflict over the Israeli military raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in 2010 resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.

The Israeli government rejected the Turkish request for an apology and following the leaking of a UN report to the New York Times the diplomatic clash escalated. According to the report, the Israeli use of force was excessive and unreasonable, but the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal. (The claim that the blockade is legal is disputed, not least due to the fact that the Israeli-Gazan conflict is not an international conflict, as Palestine is not a state and so the international law on naval blockades might not apply). Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador, cut all trade ties regarding the defense industry and announced the signature of a military pact with Cairo. According to Hürriyet, Turkish Prime Minster Recept Tayyip Erdogan also stated that Turkish naval forces “are capable of patrolling regional waters and escorting civilian ships in the Mediterranean.” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann reacted by announcing that as retaliation, Israel was considering arming the Kurdish PKK and supporting the Armenians in seeking international recognition for the Armenian genocide.

The loss of good relations with Ankara is costly for Israel. Stanley Fischer, the head of the Bank of Israel, recently warned that, as quoted in Haaretz, the “consequences of not having trade relations with Turkey will be expensive,” as Turkey is a fast-growing economic power in the region. According to a new report released by the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute and covering the first three months of 2010, Turkey is Israel’s third-largest export market after the United States and Holland. This report shows that despite political tensions, exports from Tel Aviv to Ankara increased by 73% in comparison to the same period of the previous year.

But Turkey is not only important for Israel in economic terms. According to Zvi Elpeleg, Israeli Ambassador to Turkey from 1995 to 1997 and currently President of the Turkey-Israel Friendship Association, Ankara was “a ray of light” within “a stagnant Islamic world”. In an interview with the author in May 2010, he expressed the idea that the current crisis is directly connected to the denied acceptance of Turkey in the European Union: “For a long time,” clarified the ambassador, “Turkish leaders have seen our country as a tool for accessing the offices in Brussels. Such expectations didn’t work as hoped and the excesses of the last historical phase have been a partial consequence of it. To this, it should be added the great susceptibility that the Palestinian question has in Turkish society. Only the Armenian issue could be compared to it.”

In recent years, partially driven by the frustration regarding accession talks with the EU, as well as Turkey’s economic growth, Ankara started to re-orient its foreign policy trying to expand its influence in neighboring regions, notably also in the Arab world. As Turkey’s alignment with Israel had hindered this objective, Israelis feel that their relations are sacrificed now for the sake of Turkey’s growing power. In addition, the new foreign policy approach is also perceived as populist. The éclat at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009, when Erdogan attacked Israeli President Shimon Peres, was seen as an attempt to stop the drop in votes for the AKP, as had happened in local elections in 2007. The more recent flotilla raid, similarly, created nationalist sentiments, supported by the speeches delivered by the members of the government and by a renewed awareness in public opinion: “[Turkey],” noticed Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist, “genuinely recognizes Israel’s right to exist but strongly condemns its ‘right’ to occupy.”

In Israel, the rift with Ankara gave fuel to fears of an “all-out Middle East war” in the face of a “radical Islamic winter”, as voiced by the Israeli Defense Forces Home Front Command Chief Eyal Eisenberg. Following a series of terrorist attacks in southern Israel, where eight Israelis died and which led to the killing of six Egyptian policy makers by Israeli defense forces, diplomatic relations with Egypt are also at a low point. The link between Egypt and Turkey – underlined by Erdogan’s recent visit to Egypt – makes the situation worse.

In the wake of the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by demonstrators, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak commented that Israel has to address its growing isolation in the region. Haaretz reported on Monday that documents from the Foreign Ministry, the secret services (Shin Bet and Mossad) and from military intelligence all recommend progress in peace talks with the Palestinians to improve Israel’s standing in the region. Israel will seek consultations with the Middle East Quartet, and at the same time, France and Spain seem to be progressing in their drive to move the European Union towards a common, positive position on the Palestinian statehood declaration by negotiating a package deal and wording with the other big three: Germany, Britain and Italy.

These changing “realities” in the Middle East require Israel to have a responsible long-term strategy which enhances its legitimacy in the region. Former Israeli envoy to Ankara, Alon Liel, suggested on that current Israeli diplomacy “has no concrete plans to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” which he perceives as the “undeclared policy that has led to the latest rift in the Turkish-Israeli bilateral link.” Such rift might last for years, as already happened in 1981 when the bilateral relationship was downgraded in a similar way and successively restored only in 1992. For this reason, today’s crisis is not likely to be resolved through diplomacy alone. The Netanyahu government’s policy towards the Palestinians requests a sea of change so that Turkey, like any future democratically-elected government in the region, can find support for stable relations with Israel in their electorates.