Turkey and Israel: A Marriage of Convenience and Necessity?

March 9, 2022

The transfer of Israeli natural gas to Europe via Turkey could be the backbone of a solid partnership.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog walks towards 10 Downing Street ahead of bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, United Kingdom on November 23, 2021. Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz, Anadolu Images

Efforts towards normalization in bilateral ties between Turkey and Israel have been underway for some time. The process of normalization is expected to bear fruit with Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s planned visit to Turkey on March 9-10. The Israeli president’s acceptance of the invitation by the Turkish leadership to visit the country after more than a decade of frosty relations merits attention and deliberation.

The normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations is dictated by regional and global pressures as well as driven by mutually expected opportunities both at regional and global levels.

The Middle East as we know it? No more

Turkish-Israeli normalization is taking place within the context of a structural change in the regional environment of the Middle East. All prominent players in the Middle East such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel as well as the UAE and Qatar–who happen to be also traditional U.S. allies–are going through a period of reckoning and due adjustment for more strategic autonomy, which is not a result of their own choice. Now, all regional players feel the urgency of safeguarding their interests with limited expectations from Washington.

The abrupt withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan was a wake-up call for all traditional American allies in the region: the U.S. is not omnipresent there anymore to provide unwavering security in the Middle East, and since Obama’s “Asia Pivot” its focus is rather on the Asia-Pacific. The corollary is that regional actors must act together and take care of their own security and survival.

Thus, regional actors in the Middle East cannot afford to be involved in an unending geopolitical struggle with each other, especially when the Iranian threat is looming. Iran is becoming a commonly perceived threat among the traditional U.S. allies both with its potential for regional expansion in light of the renewed nuclear talks with the U.S. and with the actual attacks by Iranian proxies, showcased by Houthi attacks against the UAE, the tanker attacks in the Gulf in the past, and the ongoing missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

Opportunities, like systemic pressures, are driving the wave of normalization, too. The diversification in the interests and priorities of certain regional powers–Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE especially on specific cases such as Yemen, the OPEC, the Ethiopia-Renaissance Dam, etc.–that since 2013 used to move in concert with one each other and Israel on almost all issues, opened up a lot more options for all: no actor is hostage to any specific camp, coalition, or alliance anymore. “Out of the box” options such as aligning with Turkey became viable for all actors.

With the thaw in relations between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf and Egypt as well as Turkey’s active signaling of its interest in normalization with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, the regional environment became much favorable to cooperation rather than conflict.

Plus, for the better part of the past decade, the abovementioned actors had been locked in a geopolitical struggle, which proved to be resource-consuming while everyone reached their natural limits during this arm wrestling. There is no point in further escalation. It is time to tap into the opportunities of cooperation.

Biden’s foreign policy

The Biden administration’s general cold shoulder to the United States’ traditional allies, such as Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt, and its willingness to engage with Iran to renew the nuclear deal brought back the specter of Iranian expansion, similar to the one present under the Obama administration.

Therefore, in the face of an emboldened and expansionist Iranian threat–that would be tolerated by the Biden administration–Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and UAE seem to be putting aside their differences and are willing to cooperate.

Biden is starkly different than Trump, who had given a carte blanche to the aggressive and expansionist ventures of his “favorite dictators” in the Middle East, such as those in Yemen and Libya. Trump’s favorites are not tolerated and encouraged by Biden anymore, which is obliging the former to ameliorate their relations. Biden’s more intervening attitude in foreign affairs, as opposed to Trump’s isolationism, also contracts the maneuvering room of regional powers.

The Biden administration’s withdrawal of support from the EastMed project has been a watershed moment for the normalization of relations between Turkey, on the one hand, and Israel and Egypt, on the other. The project functioned as a divisive force between Turkey, Israel, and Egypt due to the Greek and Greek Cypriot input. The realization of EastMed’s unfeasible nature paved the way for other feasible alternatives such as the pipeline project between Turkey, Israel, and Egypt.

Changes in international politics

The COVID19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy has taken a toll on each and every national economy. The world is yet to recover from the disruption in supply chains and food security became extremely important as many regions are experiencing partial food crises. This makes geopolitical struggles a luxury, especially in certain regions. Connectivity became much more important, and concerns for the Chinese domination of the world’s supply chains require the creation of alternatives.

The Turkish-Emirati normalization, for example, has a distinct aspect of ameliorating the problems created by the pandemic. With envisaging investments in logistics, agriculture, health, and manufacturing, Turkey and the UAE are poised to ride this wave efficiently. Likewise, Turkish-Israeli normalization is also well suited for cooperation especially in agriculture and energy among other areas.

There is growing tension and confrontation between the Western alliance and Russia over Ukraine, which will have an inevitable impact on the energy security of Europe as the Nord Stream 2 project has already been suspended. Along with LNG supplies from the U.S., Qatar, Canada, Algeria, and the pipeline gas from Azerbaijan, the transfer of Israeli gas to Europe via Turkey will be extremely valuable. This would also cement a stable and long-term Turkish-Israeli cooperation.

Iran, the common denominator?

Alliances are formed against a specific threat. Although it is too early to talk about an “alliance formation” between Turkey and Israel, Iranian expansion across the Middle East and its capacity to inflict damage on other regional actors from the Persian Gulf to Israel and from Yemen to Syria makes it a common source of concern for both Turkey and Israel. Israel already has a routine of targeting Iranian assets in Syria via airstrikes and Turkey’s performance against Iran-backed militias in Syria over a decade is beyond question.

Turkey is the greatest bulwark against Iranian expansion and aggression in northern Iraq and northern Syria. The common interest in curbing Iranian expansion could motivate Turkey and Israel towards rapid and greater cooperation. Israel cannot counter Iran solely by allying with the UAE or even Saudi Arabia–Turkey’s support is crucial.

Risks and prospects

It wouldn’t be wrong to argue that both Ankara and Tel Aviv bided their time to mend ties in the past. While Erdoğan and Netanyahu were at the steering wheel of their respective countries, it was extremely difficult to normalize ties. Netanyahu’s provocative and aggressive policies would dynamite any effort towards rapprochement anyway. Therefore, change in the Israeli government was an opportunity, very well seized by Ankara, to kick off the process, which helped both sides break the undesired deadlock.

Normalization is not a road without bumps. The Israeli government’s precarious coalition creates doubts regarding its longevity in power, which makes the Israeli presidency a much more reliable interlocutor for long-term planning in bilateral relations. Plus, the right-wing components of the Israeli government, and the aggressive and provocative policies towards Al-Aqsa Mosque, East Jerusalem, and Gaza might put the Turkey-Israel normalization in jeopardy in the future.

Notwithstanding the risks, the Turkey-Israel normalization could prioritize focusing on issues and areas of great potential rather than on disagreement points. Disagreements are already dwarfed by the greater potential of cooperation in many areas, so compartmentalization is easy.

The transfer of Israeli natural gas to Europe via Turkey could be the backbone of a solid partnership. In the best-case scenario, normalization in Turkish-Israeli relations might even relieve Turkey from the bipartisan anti-Turkish lobby in the U.S. Congress, which has been a disruptive force in Turkish-American relations for the past decade.

Bilgehan Öztürk is a foreign policy researcher at SETA Foundation. His research interests include Turkish foreign and security policies towards the MENA region, non-state armed actors, civil war, countering violent extremism, and Turkish-Russian relations. He is the co-author of the report "Countering Violent Extremism in Libya."