The Old Turkey-Israel Relationship Isn't Coming Back

The U.S. has tried to push them back together—but close friendship was always an anomaly.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent criticisms of Israel for not fulfilling Turkey’s conditions for normalizing relations—which were severed over the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident—shows the limits on U.S. influence in Turkish-Israeli relations.

Since the Obama-brokered Israeli apology in March 2013, the reconciliation process has moved at a snail’s pace. With no tangible breakthrough in negotiations on compensation for the families of the ship attack victims, relations continued to suffer throughout Turkey’s turbulent summer. Erdogan and his aides’ remarks blaming the “Jewish diaspora” for the internal turmoil, and Israel for the Egyptian coup, further undermined Obama’s efforts to revitalize relations.

Fixing Turkish-Israeli relations has become something of a Sisyphean task for U.S. policymakers, who have gone to great lengths in their attempts to revive the 1990s—the glorious era in bilateral Israeli-Turkish relations. But the love affair of the 1990s was an anomaly, not the norm. And right now Washington can do little to change that. It may be time to lower expectations, and simply work to prevent problems in Turkish-Israeli relations from affecting Turkish-U.S. ties.

Easier said than done. Israel is a central consideration in American foreign policy in the Middle East, and Ankara’s relations with Tel Aviv affect its relations with Washington. Most importantly, Erdogan’s close ties with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, are a serious irritant. After Hamas cut its umbilical cord with Iran and Syria, Ankara has emerged as one of its most notable patrons, something that cannot easily be overlooked in Washington or by Jewish groups. But Turkey is one of the few countries the U.S. can work with in the region, and it should not let relations fall victim to the woes in Turkish-Israeli ties.

The rise and fall of an alliance

Until the 1990s, ties between Turkey and Israel were informal and distant, despite being part of the same camp during the Cold War. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel in 1949, mostly to please the U.S. and further its NATO aspirations. But this did not lead to a bourgeoning relationship. Throughout this period, Ankara mostly maintained a pro-Arab tilt, not allowing the U.S. to use its bases in Turkey to support Israel during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, and joining other Arab countries in calling for return to pre-1967 borders.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Relations grew strong. In 1991, Ankara upgraded relations with Israel to the ambassadorial level. This was followed by agreements on tourism, economic cooperation, and free trade, but the center of bilateral ties came to be extensive military cooperation. Both countries began joint air-force training, naval visits, military personnel exchanges, military technology transfers, and joint military research. Ankara granted Israel access to Turkish airspace and Israel agreed to upgrade Turkey’s ground and air forces. The two countries also conducted naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The factors that drove Turkey to Israel included enlisting the support of the powerful Israel lobby to improve ties with Washington, which suffered under heavy influence of the Greek and Armenian lobbies, and growing frustration with the lack of Arab support for the Turkish Cypriots who had been internationally isolated since proclaiming independence from Greek Cyprus in 1983. The Oslo peace process and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation also created an environment conducive to warmer ties with Israel.

Most importantly, Ankara was driven by its insecurities in the region. In the 1990s, Turkey’s relations with its neighbors were fraught with problems. Ties with Syria were severed because of the latter’s support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose exiled leader was sheltered in Damascus. Furthermore, Ankara eyed with suspicion the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq formed in the aftermath of the Gulf War, which it feared would embolden its own restive Kurdish population. Turkish elites also saw Tehran as a threat, not least because of its efforts to export its revolution and its ties with the PKK.

All was not quiet on the western front either. Hostile relations with Greece over maritime disputes in the Aegean drove both countries to the brink of war several times. Close ties with Israel helped break this growing isolation, and improved relations with the United States. In cozying up to Israel, Turkey’s military also wanted to undermine the Islamist prime minister Erbakan—a staunch anti-Westernist who saw Turkey’s future with the Islamic world. For the Turkish military, the alliance was a bulwark against “theocratic extremism.”