In the past year, Israel and Turkey have taken a series of steps that point to a gradual normalisation of their relations. But by bringing its relationship with Ankara back from the brink, Tel Aviv also achieved something else: for the first time since it came into existence, Israel has official diplomatic relations with almost all of its neighbours. Here’s how these two unlikely partners are getting along today, what brought them to this place, and what lies ahead for them in coming years.
A brief history of Israel-Turkey relations since 2010
Israel-Turkey relations have been rocky since 2010 when Benjamin Netanyahu took office as Israeli Prime Minister. The Turkish government of the day, led at the time by the Islamist Justice and Development Party, was critical of Netanyahu’s policies and actions including continued settlement construction in the West Bank. Two events in 2010 resulted in the breakdown of Israel-Turkey relations that still exist today. First, there was the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May. The Turkish government called for an international probe into the incident, but Israel refused, leading to a diplomatic breakdown. Second, in September, Israel’s government refused to apologize to Turkey, despite the urging of then-Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Israel and Turkey: Different interests, different priorities
The primary goals of Israeli and Turkish policy are to defend their own interests, which are not always aligned. While the two are not necessarily opposed, they are not always in collaboration either. In fact, there is often a degree of tension between them. Turkey is juggling many different issues. It has a domestic agenda focused on consolidating power in the government for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies. It has a foreign policy agenda focused on challenging the West, primarily through the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements that oppose secular governments, including in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkey also has significant economic challenges. The Turkish lira has weakened and inflation is rising. The country also struggles with a high level of debt, which is an issue that has caused many emerging-market governments to face challenges in recent years. Turkey has also been trying to join the European Union (EU) as a member state since 2005, following its application to become a full member of the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the EU, on 14 April 1987. The normalisation of bilateral ties with Israel may also be an opportunity for Turkey to strengthen their bid to join the EU.
Mavi Marmara incident
The Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 was the proximate cause of the breakdown in Israel-Turkey relations, though it was not the underlying cause. The proximate cause was that the Israeli government refused to issue an apology for the incident, while the underlying cause was the broader state of relations between the two countries. Israel’s refusal to apologize led the Turkish government to break off diplomatic ties with Israel altogether. The incident was a clash aboard an aid flotilla intended to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. On one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, Israeli naval commandos were attacked, and Israel claims nine of them were injured. Israel responded by raiding the ship and killing nine activists who they say were armed. The incident was a major source of tension between the two countries, and a source of great embarrassment for the Turkish government which had claimed to have brokered a deal between Israel and the flotilla organizers that would have avoided the confrontation.
What has happened since?
Relations broke down again in 2018 when Turkey, angered by the United States moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, once more recalled its ambassador, prompting Israel to respond in kind.
Israel’s relations with Turkey have been on a gradual path towards normalization since the breakdown in relations in 2010. This is due to a combination of factors, including political changes in both countries, the diplomatic efforts of third parties, and the two countries’ own interests in normalizing relations.
In recent years, Israeli and Turkish officials have made a series of public appearances together in an attempt to normalize relations. This is what has come to be known as the “Isra-stabilization” process. Israeli government officials have travelled to Turkey to participate in events and make statements in support of normalization, while Turkish officials have met in Israel to discuss the same. The most significant example of this process was a visit to Turkey by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2018. Netanyahu met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the two agreed to restore full diplomatic relations. Netanyahu also agreed to pay compensation to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. This was a significant development in the normalization of relations between the two countries. Israeli officials had previously said that there would be no normalization of relations until Turkey issued an apology for the incident. This was not something that Erdoğan was willing to do.
So the normalization of relations was being held back by two issues: the compensation issue, and the issue of Erdoğan’s public criticism of Israeli policy. The visit by Netanyahu was significant in that it addressed both of these issues. First, Netanyahu officially apologized for the Mavi Marmara incident. Although he did not issue an apology for the broader policies towards the Palestinians that have long been a source of tension, he did accept responsibility for the incident. Second, Netanyahu made it clear that he expected no further public criticism from Erdoğan. This was enough to satisfy both sides, and normalization has been proceeding ever since.
More recently in June, the Turkish authorities arrested five Iranians suspected of planning attacks on Israelis ahead of Lapid’s visit to Turkey. Israel’s current Prime Minister, Yair Lapid said that this event ahead of his visit highlighted warming in relations between the two occasional regional rivals.
Tourism is also thought to be a major factor in normalisation. Tourism is central to the two countries economic ties as Turkey is known as being one of the most popular destinations for Israeli tourists. In early July, Israel and Turkey signed an aviation deal, their first since 1951. The agreement is expected to result in the resumption of flights by Israeli companies to a variety of destinations in Turkey, alongside flights by Turkish companies to Israel.
Image Credit: Isaac Herzog/Twitter.