What would a Turkey-Israel rapprochement mean for regional geopolitics?
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev recently stated that he was seeking to mend relations between Turkey and Israel, countries whose support played a critical role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh last month. “Aliyev and his senior advisers have communicated that they want to see both of their good friends — Turkey and Israel — getting back to normal relations and they are willing to help to make that happen," Israeli officials told local media last week, TRT World reports.
Turkish - Israeli relations have been fraught over the past decade, but in recent weeks, both sides appeared to signal a potential improvement in relations. Turkey announced earlier this month that it was appointing a new ambassador to Israel after more than two years. Outgoing Israeli Chargé d’Affaires Roey Gilad also penned a Tweet this week that hinted at improved relations.
At the same time, the geopolitical context in which both countries are operating has changed significantly since 2010-- disputes over maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as increased Arab state cooperation with Israel were not the hot topics they are today.
Furthermore, Joe Biden is about to enter office after a four-year Trump presidency that saw the rapid expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements. Meanwhile, Israel is preparing for its fourth elections in less than two years.
Though it is still too soon to call it a real rapprochement, here’s how it could alter some regional flashpoint issues.
“It takes two to tango” in the Eastern Mediterranean
In recent years, Israel has deepened its relations with Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration, to the irritation of its long-standing ally, Turkey. In July, Israel ratified a deal on the EastMed pipeline project, an ambitious plan that aims to run from Israel to Greece, though many experts are still divided over its cost and technical feasibility. Perhaps more critically, Israel, Egypt, Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration, Italy, Jordan and Palestine created the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in 2019 to enhance energy cooperation, excluding Turkey.
Meanwhile Turkey underlines that a Israel-Turkey gas pipeline, for which the two countries had started discussions in 2016, would be the quickest and cheapest route to Europe.
“As much as Israel and Turkey restore official diplomatic relations, there will still be a lot of places of division...so I’m not sure whether there will be a lot of willingness to drop the alliances Israel has in the East Med in favour of looking into exporting via Turkey,” Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim Institute, an Israel-based foreign policy think tank, told TRT World.
Meanwhile, Turkey is also unlikely to change its policies in the region.
“There are no changes in Turkey’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean, it will maintain its drilling activities to take advantage of its rightful share in the region in accordance with International Law and the Convention on the Law of the Sea,” said Mesut Casin, professor of international law at Yeditepe University.
“Let’s not forget that we are not Israel’s enemy. Turkey has always stood by Israel, and as long as Turkey is there, Israel will be more comfortable in the Eastern Mediterranean. It takes two to tango, and the ball is in Israel’s court,” he continued.
Also different from the 2010 context is the normalisation of ties between several Arab countries and Israel. Turkey denounced the UAE’s and Bahrain’s moves as “hypocritical” and threatening to the Palestinian cause.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, noted that the UAE-Israeli normalisation, was aimed, in part, to contain Turkey, which it views as a threat.
“A thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations could upset Abu Dhabi which has vested stakes in seeing Israel function as a de facto member of an anti-Turkish bloc of countries in the Mediterranean and Middle East,” he said.
Patrick Theros, former US Ambassador to Qatar, says the UAE may work to discourage Israelis in the case of Turkish-Israeli rapprochement
“They clearly are trying to make themselves powers in the Mediterranean...so I think they would manoeuvre to prevent it from getting too deep,” he told TRT World, noting that he thought the UAE didn’t view this as a possibility in the near future.
What about Palestine?
In a period of rapid de facto legitimisation of Israeli encroachment, the “deal of the century”, and Israel’s annexation plans, UAE normalisation dealt another blow to the Palestinian cause.
Many Palestinians continue to view Turkey as the key defender of the Palestinian cause who can wield effective political clout to this end.
“For Turkey to have a diplomatic representation [again] will allow it once again to become a more significant and accepted actor, because currently having such problematic relations with Israel sidelines Turkey from being able to play a role in the Palestinian issue beyond the statements coming from Ankara,” said Goren.
“So I think more chances of engagement and cooperation and communication, may make Turkey more relevant.”
Finding common ground among political stumbling blocks
Relations between the two countries have been mostly distant since the Israeli army’s bloody raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara. Turkey’s leadership continues to condemn Israel’s policies toward and military incursions into the Palestinian territories, while Israel accuses Turkey of giving passports to Hamas, described to be a “very unfriendly” move by Tel Aviv.
For all of the political stumbling blocks, Turkey and Israel have managed to upkeep economic, intelligence and security cooperation.
“Ultimately, there is a significant trust deficit between Turkey and Israel,” said Cafiero. “That said, there are signs that Turkey and Israel want to avoid an escalation of tension while also exploring areas for bilateral cooperation.”
According to Samuel Ramani, doctoral research at Oxford University, both sides have strategic and economic gains from potential rapprochement.
“Israel has raised the threat assessment about Turkey over the past couple of years. So a normalisation or at least a de-escalation of tensions, even if it's a cold peace, would forestall and prevent that long-term threat scenario from taking hold,” Ramani said, adding that the two countries have maintained intelligence and military coordination despite high-level tensions.
“And Turkey is also a bulwark against Iranian influence in Syria...and the Israeli-Iranian proxy war in Syria has really escalated over the past year. So the Iranian vector in Syria could be the third area where the Turks and the Israelis could maybe find some common ground.
“Not lost in the equation are Turkish economic interests which stand to gain from a better relationship with Israel,” added Cafiero. The two countries have discussed strengthening trade ties after the pandemic.
“In addition to defence, security, and commercial ties, we can also cooperate in knowledge-sharing in industry, agriculture and animal husbandry, and tourism,” said Casin.