Will Israel’s New Government Revive Ties with Turkey?

Burcu Ozcelik

AFP Photo: Adem Altan

With Naftali Bennett now prime minister, Israel’s foreign policy direction has been under scrutiny. Eyes are locked on how politically divisive issues like West Bank settlements, peace with the Palestinians and religious-secular relations will be handled by the fragile eight-party coalition. Is a strategic foreign policy reorientation possible? (Coalition members certainly want this.) So far, however, little in the way of the new government’s intentions are clear across a range of geographies and interests. Within such an atmosphere, the question of revitalized ties between Israel and Turkey has unsurprisingly emerged in recent weeks. (Only, don’t bet on it.)

Israel has tipped the balance against its isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years by striking a deal to form the Hellenic Alliance. This aligns Israel with Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and Palestine – all members of the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum. The UAE signed on in December as an observer, largely as a rebuke to Turkey’s ambitions in the region; Ankara was never invited to join either the forum or the alliance.

Keen to steer out of its isolation, Ankara has made overtures separately to Egypt and the Palestinians in recent months, which included proposals to redraw conflicting maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean. Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh agreed in theory to this offer, seeing the outreach as an affirmation of Palestine’s status and therefore of its rights. It wouldn’t be the first time Turkey tried to sideline its adversaries through alternative deal-making. In 2019, Ankara signed a maritime agreement with Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, causing upset among other littoral countries that saw the move as an affront to their own maritime zones.

On Israel’s side, more of the same probably is on the cards as it seeks to build on recent gains, for example, with the Abraham Accords. The Accords, brokered by former US president Donald Trump, normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Israel’s ambassador to Greece, Yossi Amrani, has said that bilateral relations would continue to grow and that a change in government would not deter plans for the EastMed gas pipeline project. Yair Lapid, who serves as Israel’s foreign minister until he takes over as prime minister in two years’ time, visits the UAE on June 29 and 30 to inaugurate the country’s embassy in Abu Dhabi.

Yet, for all that, and especially because the new government consists of ideologically opposed parties united only in their defiance against Benjamin Netanyahu, there is pressure for some measure of change away from Netanyahu-era policy, or at the very least from that of the past couple of years.

It is for this reason that some have looked to a re-engagement with Turkey as low-hanging fruit. Relations between the two that were once the model for strategic cooperation in the Middle East and a lifeline for both countries, have had their ups and downs since diplomatic normalization in 2016. Yet ties in one form or another have existed since 1949; thus, it isn’t impossible to imagine their revival from their current low. Restoring relations to ambassadorial level would be a start. The trouble is, Ankara’s outreach to Gaza-based Palestinians works against a long-time demand by Israel for Turkey to limit its relations with Hamas.

Indeed, Turkey is keen to revive its standing as a stakeholder on the Palestinian issue. The matter of settlements in the West Bank and the whittling down of the two-state solution rank high on Turkey’s list of grievances. It has long prided itself on championing Palestinian rights internationally.

The inclusion of the Israeli-Arab Ra’am party in the coalition government was interpreted as giving Turkey’s ruling AKP party a reason to extend an olive branch to Israel. But earlier this month, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said stability between the two states depends on Israel stopping “unlawful practices against the Palestinians.” Echoing this line, political scholar Burhanettin Duran wrote in Turkey’s Daily Sabah that while Bennett is not weighed down by Netanyahu’s baggage, it is unlikely that he will stray from his predecessor’s position on the status of Jerusalem or the West Bank.

Still, the future of Turkey-Israel ties need not be so bleak. According to Can Kasapoglu, an Istanbul-based war and security analyst, while Turkey will continue to pursue geopolitical competition with Iran and Russia that dates back to the days of empire, the same is not true vis-a-vis Israel. In an interview with Turkey’s Şalom newspaper, he said there is nothing inevitable about a breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel, adding that meeting reciprocal demands on each side is still possible.

Even then, progress will be slow and hard. George N Tzogopoulos, a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, points out that both Bennett and Lapid were tough on Turkey in the past. He told me via email that “Israel and Turkey disagree on many themes,” but added that they “have kept channels of communication open and they can still cooperate.” According to Tzogopoulos, “Israel is primarily interested in safeguarding its national security and therefore it will be keen on seeking common ground with Turkey.”

In the last decade, Israel has cultivated new allies. Turkey, once seen as an indispensable interlocutor, is met with greater caution today. Indeed, many new friends of Israel are likely to urge against reinvigorating relations with Turkey. So while Bennett may be keen to show some foreign policy independence from Netanyahu, Israel’s larger interests and Turkey’s desire for leadership in Palestine clash with the goal of getting the two largest Middle East powers on the Eastern Mediterranean to form closer ties. The possibility is there, but the momentum to take a leap of faith is not.

Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.