Meanwhile, the new Israeli government has an opportunity to boost the partnership with Mediterranean allies Greece and Cyprus.
By Yaakov Lappin, JNS
The latest sign of mending Turkish-Israeli relations occurred on Tuesday, when the fresh Israeli ambassador to Ankara, Irit Lillian, presented her credentials to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and filled a post that had been vacant for four years.
On the surface, it appears as if Turkish-Israeli relations are returning to better days, but there remain fundamental questions about the future of the relationship, in particular due to the Anatolian nation’s ongoing support for Hamas.
On the one hand, Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency and Israeli Mossad operatives reportedly cooperated extraordinarily well to thwart Iranian terror squads that were sent to target Israeli tourists on Turkish soil in June.
On the other, Israel has apparently yet to receive clear assurances that the Hamas Palestinian terror organization will be restricted in its ability to operate on Turkish soil, from where it coordinates funding for attacks in Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank, and also seeks to orchestrate them. The exact scope of this activity is unknown.
George Tzogopoulos, research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a lecturer at the European Institute of Nice, told JNS in recent days, “Ι would never expect ties between Israel and Turkey go back to full normalcy—despite the restoration of [full]diplomatic relations—without Jerusalem getting assurances from Ankara about the restriction of Hamas and seeing evidence towards this direction. The Netanyahu government, in particular, will be adamant in its fair demand.
“Having said that, the ball will be in the court of Turkey. Erdogan knows very well what he has to do to help the Israeli government—but also ordinary Israeli citizens—trust Turkey again. It will be a long process,” he said.
The efforts to improve ties with Israel are part of a broader trend, said Tzogopoulos.
“Turkey seeks to repair ties with several countries of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt—to some degree—are examples, in tandem with Israel,” he said.
“I would therefore place the improvement of Turkish-Israeli relations in the context of the adjustment of Ankara’s strategy. Erdogan realizes the risks and limits in constantly feuding with others, and strives to create cooperation opportunities. Obviously, Israel is highly significant for his country as the history of the Turkish-Israeli relationship, before 2010, showcases,” he stated.
Under the current circumstances, Erdogan is particularly interested in pleasing Washington and also in “preventing a situation where Turkey might be sidelined from regional deliberations in the Eastern Mediterranean” relating to natural gas discoveries and other issues, Tzogopoulos assessed.
In August, Israel and Turkey announced that they would restore full diplomatic relations and return ambassadors and consuls general.
“Upgrading relations will contribute to deepening ties between the two peoples, expanding economic, trade and cultural ties, and strengthening regional stability,” said Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the time. “The resumption of relations with Türkiye [Turkey] is…very important economic news for the citizens of Israel. We will continue to strengthen Israel’s standing in the world.”
Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal concluded the arrangement during a phone call in August. In March, Israeli President Isaac Herzog met with his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan in Ankara.
Yet according to a report in July by Israel Hayom, expectations that Israel’s honeymoon with Erdogan would change some of Turkey’s habits and patterns of behavior had yet to be fulfilled.
“For example, as part of the reconciliation with Israel, Turkey committed to preventing Hamas from plotting terrorist attacks from inside its borders and even reduce the organization’s presence and activity in its territory,” said the report.
In October, during a meeting between Erdogan and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the minister accused Hamas leaders in Turkey of coordinating and funding terror attacks in Judea and Samaria.
In November, Middle East Eye reported that Turkey refused to comply with Israeli demands requesting the deportation of Hamas leaders living in the country, citing comments by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at a parliamentary proceeding.
“We didn’t satisfy any [Israeli] request on Hamas, because we don’t perceive Hamas as a terror group,” Cavusoglu said at the time. “We are always leading efforts to unify them with Fatah,” he added.
Turkey is Israel’s fourth-largest trade partner and in 2021 it was Israel’s fifth-largest export destination. Since May 1, 1997, the two countries have enjoyed a free-trade agreement and held four joint economic summits.
In June, Israel and Turkey also signed a civil aviation agreement as part of a deal to broaden bilateral ties. These developments are a far cry from the 2010 crisis in relations that occurred after the Mavi Marmara incident. Then, nine Turkish nationals were killed in clashes that broke out after Israeli commandos were attacked when boarding a ship sent by an Islamist organization deemed close to Erdogan that was attempting to break Israel’s security blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, according to Tzogopoulos, a new opportunity for invigorating the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot alliance is presenting itself.
“I consider the return of [Benjamin] Netanyahu to power good news for the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot strategic partnership. This partnership lost momentum during the Bennett-Lapid administration. Also, the Biden presidency does not actively support the tripartite mechanism of Jerusalem, Athens and Nicosia as it seeks to remove some obstacles that arguably push Ankara away from the West,” he said.
“Netanyahu will be able, in my opinion, to strike a balance among the necessity for Israel to normalize with Turkey, the promising advancement of the Jerusalem, Athens and Nicosia partnership, and the required appeasement of Washington’s concerns.
“The Israeli government can work together with the ones in Greece and Cyprus—after the legislative and presidential elections that will take place in both Greece and Cyprus in 2023—to ensure that Turkey will be part of regional deliberations, subject to its compliance with the code of contact of the majority of Eastern Mediterranean countries. Even here, the ball will be in the court of Turkey,” Tzogopoulos said.