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.”
While both nations’ militaries continued to cooperate in areas like intelligence, the Turkish-Israeli alliance started to steadily fall apart under Erdogan, who made no secret of his distaste for Israel. Relations were seriously strained in late 2008 after the Israeli offensive into Gaza that ended Turkey’s mediation efforts between Israel and Syria. The turning point came in 2009, when Erdogan and Israeli president Shimon Peres engaged in a public argument at Davos. The 2010 flotilla incident, in which Israel intercepted a Gaza-bound relief ship and killed nine Turkish nationals, was the final blow.
Apology and Failed Reconciliation
Many in Washington predicted that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s apology would lead to the restoration of ties. The fact that bilateral trade flourished even at the worst of the times lent credence to such predictions. But lack of progress despite the U.S. efforts is somewhat indicative of how the importance of improved relations has diminished, especially for Turkey.
While Turkey and Israel continue to share certain interests in the region, such as the prevention of the proliferation of WMDs, factors that enabled robust ties have dissipated over time. Most importantly, the political role of the Turkish military, the main driver of the relations in the 1990s, declined under the continuing efforts of the AKP and was neutered by 2008. Further, the regional scene began to change. With the new zero problems policy, Ankara started to reach out to its neighbors, making friends of old enemies, and shook off its sense of insecurity and encirclement that was dominant in the 1990s. Turkey emerged as a confident actor as it buried the hatchet with Greece, Syria, Iran, and Iraqi Kurds, and even made openings in relations with Armenia. It also viewed the Palestinian issue as a key to winning over the “Arab street” and boosting its position. The flotilla incident, which occurred with a wink from the Turkish government, which allowed the ships to sail to Gaza, came to reflect how Israel became expendable for Turkey. Ankara no longer saw Tel Aviv as a pillar of strength in an increasingly hostile neighborhood.
While the zero-problems policy has been unraveling since 2011, leaving Ankara with few friends and an unending civil war on its doorstep, it has been replaced with a new sectarian policy in which Turkey has started to play the Sunni overlord. With Turkey taking on a new role as the guardian and sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk, cozy relations with Israel seemed no longer convenient. That’s why the severing of ties with Damascus and increasing tensions with Tehran over Syria and NATO missile-defense systems have not reversed the worsening trajectory of Turkish-Israeli relations. Erdogan’s Israel-bashing, intended to shore up his nationalist-conservative constituency to preserve his domestic standing, also took its toll.
The future of relations
Today, despite the historical affinities between the Turks and Jews, neither the Turkish government nor the public puts much store on reviving the warm ties with Israel, and the regional dynamics that had driven the alliance are no longer in force. Both sides may ultimately come to agreement on compensation, followed by exchange of ambassadors. Erdogan may well take some steps to deescalate tensions, as Turkey did in late August when Turkish president Abdullah Gul invited an Israeli envoy to Turkish Victory Day celebrations. Undoubtedly, Erdogan does not want his problems with Israel to damage relations with the United States—especially when he needs America’s hand in meeting the challenges posed by Syria. But he will likely not go much further than that. He will do as little as possible, and even that unwillingly.
In this light, the U.S. should revisit its expectations on how far Turkish-Israeli ties can go, and to what extent it can shape these relations. It is past time for the U.S. to realize that there is no affection between the two publics and that the golden age of the nineties was an aberration. Washington should work to compartmentalize Turkish-Israeli relations from cooperation with Turkey in other areas that are central to shared interests in the region.
Omer Zarpli is a research associate at the Century Foundation.