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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview: Alan Makovsky on the Future of Israel-Turkey Relations

On June 27, 2016, after a six year rupture, a reconciliation agreement was announced to restore full diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel. Less than a month later, on July 15, elements of the Turkish military failed in an attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Joining Near East Report to discuss these developments and their intersection is regional expert and Senior Fellow at the Center for America Progress Alan Makovsky.

Q: Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations were normalized in June 2016 with the signing of a reconciliation deal. What were the driving forces behind this thaw, and what does the deal entail?

A: It boils down to two primary factors: Turkey wanted to break out of its diplomatic isolation—it began a process of rapprochement with Russia just a few days before reaching agreement with Israel—and Israel wants to lay the groundwork for selling some of its offshore gas to Turkey or, through Turkey, to Europe. Netanyahu said the deal would bring “immense positive” economic benefits for Israel.

Israel had more leverage, as Turkey’s need for easing its diplomatic isolation was more urgent than Israel’s need to sell its gas. Israel’s large Leviathan gas field will not be operational before 2019, and an undersea pipeline from Israel to Turkey faces a major geopolitical obstacle: It must traverse the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone of the Greek-Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus, which will likely deny it permission unless the decades-old Cyprus problem is resolved first. Of course, Turkey, now dependent on Russia for over half its natural gas and desperate to diversify its sources, is as eager to receive the gas as Israel is to sell it. That incentive may push Turkey, through its Turkish Cypriot clients, to be more flexible regarding a Cyprus settlement. Still, there will be no pipeline and no gas flowing from Israel to Turkey for several more years, at best.

Nearly from the outset of the 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis, President Erdogan and the Turks have made three demands of Israel: a formal apology, compensation for the wounded and families of the dead, and an “end to the blockade” of Gaza. Here’s the bottom-line scorecard: Erdogan got the apology during President Obama’s March 2013 visit to Israel, and Israel has now agreed to pay a total of $20 million as compensation. However, Turkey has had to drop its unrealistic demand about ending the blockade, instead acceding to Israel’s insistence that all Turkish humanitarian aid and other materials be shipped through the Israeli port of Ashdod. There are indications, however, that Turkey will likely be given the lead in several major construction projects in Gaza, including a hospital, a power plant and a desalination plant. One centrist Israeli MK (Member of Knesset) told me he supported the agreement primarily so a reliable partner could be found to solve Gaza’s water problem, before poisoned aquifers affect Israel’s water supply.       

There were two other key elements to the deal, which reflect Israeli demands. Turkey agreed to drop a Mavi Marmara-related court case targeting four former senior IDF (Israel Defense Forces) generals and to pass legislation ensuring that no further legal action will be brought regarding this matter. Turkey likewise agreed to prevent Hamas from planning anti-Israel operations from its office in Turkey, causing Israel to drop its demand that Turkey close the office altogether.

There are a couple of interesting wrinkles here. It appears that Israel will not actually pay the compensation until the Turkish parliament passes the agreement, including the provision preventing further legal action against IDF officers. It is likely also the case that ambassadors will not be exchanged until both those actions—Turkish parliamentary approval and Israeli payment of compensation—take place.

We should keep in mind that the text of the agreement has not been made public, so there could still be surprises or new wrinkles. However, what we’ve learned from statements by Israeli and Turkish officials, plus backgrounders provided to the press, seems to give a complete picture.

Q: Will this deal truly lead to deeper cooperation between Israel and Turkey? What would that look like? And how do the strategic interests of the two countries overlap and diverge?

A: If the model is the 1990s—huge Israeli arms sales to Turkey, joint air force exercises several times a year, frequent ministerial visits—I see no prospect of a return to that type of relationship. The deal does, however, create an opening of goodwill that Israelis and Turks may be able to widen.

There will be more diplomatic contact, more people-to-people contact, probably more commercial contact (even though what exists is already considerable). Across the board, as contact with Israel ceases to be taboo, there will be more Turkish-Israeli interaction. Perhaps there will be enhanced security contact as well, even if not approaching that of the 1990s. One of Erdogan’s advisers has said that he anticipates intelligence-sharing regarding ISIS. Whatever Erdogan’s ideological orientation, Turkey is a member of NATO, so its military is basically Western-oriented, meaning it has certain common interests and compatibilities with Israel’s military. I wouldn’t make too much of that for now, but it does mean that there is a basis for enhanced cooperation should the political decision be made to pursue that course.

Of course, the Turkish military is now in transition, with much of its leadership removed and Erdogan having promised to bring in “fresh blood,” including new types of personnel (read: pro-Erdogan), and strengthen his personal grip, so it will be awhile before the Turkish military’s new culture and personality become clear. Even if the military remains essentially Western-oriented, it will take considerable time to build meaningful military-to-military relations. If the military truly moves in a more Islamist direction, obviously cooperation will be impossible.

As for strategic interests, there is some basis for cooperation but less than meets the eye, in my view. Both Israel and Turkey are concerned about ISIS and ISIS-type radicalism and about Iranian aggression in the region, and neither Israel nor Turkey cares much for Bashar al-Assad. However, they prioritize and approach these problems considerably differently. Perhaps there will be episodic tactical cooperation, as well as information exchange, but more than that is unlikely.

In general terms, both share strategic interests with the so-called “moderate Sunni Arab bloc” that includes Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, with the general exception of Qatar (with which Turkey has developed close ties, including having established its first-ever overseas military base there). Unlike the bloc, however, Erdogan’s Turkey has a foot in the radical camp, having cultivated relations with the likes of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a panoply of jihadists fighting in Syria, as well as the traditionally pro-Brotherhood Qatar. Also unlike the bloc, Turkey is non-confrontational toward Iran and rarely gives public voice to its misgivings about Iran’s regional policies. In that regard, Israel is more like the moderate Arab Sunni bloc than is Sunni Turkey.

Q: How does the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey—and its aftermath—affect this reconciliation deal and more broadly Israeli-Turkish relations?

A: It complicates it.  The Erdogan government has communicated to Israel and the world that the deal will go forward. I’m told by a knowledgeable source in Erdogan’s party that the relevant legislation will be passed this month—we’ll see.  Let’s be realistic: there is so much chaos and uncertainty in Turkey since the coup attempt that we shouldn’t be shocked if the agreement is delayed, even considerably so, but for now Turkey is saying that it will go forward—and soon. As for post-agreement ties, commercial relations have flourished remarkably throughout the post-Mavi Marmara period and should continue to do so. Security relations are another matter. Even before the coup attempt, it would have been difficult to develop strong security ties. Now it will be even more difficult, given the leadership vacuum in the security services following the purge and arrests. In the post-coup period, Turkey likely will take on a new coloration, a new personality, more openly religious than previously. In short, Turkey’s approach will be normalization, yes; close relations, no.  And, given Erdogan’s Islamist reflexes, Israel will always have to remain wary of his next anti-Israel outburst.

Q: So far, post-coup anti-Israel rhetoric has been minimal—the Turkish government has instead leveled most of its accusations about the coup’s origins against domestic opposition and the West. Nonetheless, should we expect a resurgence of anti-Israel rhetoric from President Erdogan and his government?

A: Fourteen years of history—the Erdogan era effectively began with his party’s victory in November  2002—suggest that the next anti-Israel diatribe is never very far in the future. Still, I agree with you that it’s significant that Erdogan, his circle and his party’s media organs have not been implicating Israel or “Mossad” in the coup attempt even while taking constant shots at the U.S. and “the West.” That is significant, as well as unexpected, and it seems to affirm Erdogan’s desire to go forward with normalization with Israel for now.

Q: Israel has recently sought to expand and deepen its relations with a number of countries, including Cyprus and Greece. Today, from a strategic point of view, how important to Israel is a strong relationship with Turkey?

A: A strong relationship with Turkey, like that of the 1990s, would be invaluable. As a Muslim-majority country with vast airspace that it was willing openly to share with the IDF, Israel could hardly have found a better partner than Turkey. There is no prospect that the prior relationship can be revived, however. In that respect, close relations with Greece and Cyprus are an important diplomatic achievement and of strategic value. Israel has developed important political and security ties with both.  And Cyprus and Greece offer something that Turkey does not: as EU members, they can be helpful to Israel in EU councils—and reportedly already have been. For many years, both Greece and Cyprus viewed Israel coolly, and there is little doubt that mutual suspicion of Turkey has helped to cement Israeli ties with each. It will be a challenge for the Netanyahu government to keep those relationships on track, even while normalizing and seeking to build ties with Turkey.

Q: How does the reconciliation deal affect Turkey’s relationship with the Palestinians? For years, President Erdogan has been openly sympathetic and accommodating to Hamas. Can we expect more Turkish sensitivity to the security issues of Israel and a more constructive role vis-à-vis the conflict?

A: That’s unlikely, aside from Turkey’s concession to prevent Hamas from planning anti-Israel operations from Turkish territory in the reconciliation deal. And even in that case, it’s unclear how Israel will verify that Turkey is living up to its pledge—although one assumes there are means. Let’s also remember that Hamas’ Istanbul office was reportedly used in 2014 to plan a coup attempt against PA President Abbas—unsuccessful, as it turned out, thanks to Shin Bet intervention. Are those kinds of operations—operations not directly aimed at Israel but having a potentially powerful impact on Israeli interests—also banned by the agreement? It’s not clear. 

Erdogan will remain close to Hamas, given their mutual Muslim Brotherhood links. When Israel and Turkey were on the verge of concluding their deal, Erdogan hosted Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal in Ankara to explain the agreement to him. I doubt that PA President Abbas is happy to see the Turks as prospective major players in Gaza. Erdogan pays lip-service to supporting Abbas and the West Bank Palestinians—he says he loves “all our Palestinian brothers and sisters equally”—but his heart is with Hamas and Gaza. To be fair to Erdogan, though, he has never openly endorsed the Hamas platform that Israel should disappear. He has condemned Zionism on occasion, and nobody would count him among the chovevei Tsiyon (“lovers of Zion”), but he has consistently advocated a two-state, not a one-state, solution to the Palestinian problem.

Alan Makovsky is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. His decades of experience on Turkish and Middle Eastern issues include serving in senior roles on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (2001-2013), at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1994-2001), and at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (1983-1994). 

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