The Israel-Turkey crisis and the need for containment
Op-ed: Israel's frustration with Erdogan’s behavior is great, but it is worthy to remember the strategic, economic and diplomatic importance of the relations between the two countries. It is not self-evident for Israel to have full, even if problematic, diplomatic relations with a key regional state that has a large Muslim population, and these relations should not be casually waived.
Despite crises and ups and downs, Israel and Turkey enjoy continuous diplomatic ties since Turkey recognized Israel in 1949. These ties were never cut off, although twice in the past Turkey decided to downgrade them to a lower level of diplomatic representation.
The first time was in 1980, following the enactment of the Jerusalem Law by the Knesset. The international response to the Israeli move was harsh and included a UN Security Council resolution condemning it and calling on foreign countries to withdraw their embassies from Jerusalem. As a result, Jerusalem was emptied of embassies and Turkey, whose embassy was in Tel Aviv, called its ambassador back. It took another 12 years for a Turkish ambassador to return to Tel Aviv, which was made possible only after the Madrid Peace Conference.
The second time was in 2011, following the failure of efforts to resolve the Israeli-Turkish crisis that erupted following the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza. The flotilla incident occurred more than a year earlier, but only after the publication of the UN Palmer Committee Report and the Israeli refusal to accept the compromise agreement formulated by diplomats from both countries did Turkey decide to take measures against Israel, which included downgrading relations. This time, it took about five years before there was an ambassador again in the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem and Gaza were the reasons for previous Turkish decisions to downgrade relations with Israel. These issues have also been at the basis of the disputes between Israel and Turkey in recent years. The current crisis combines both issues—the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem and the tension it creates in east Jerusalem, alongside the Palestinian demonstrations in the Gaza Strip and the large number of Palestinians killed therein.
In the past year, a pattern in Erdoğan's behavior could be observed. In each of the relevant cases—the tension surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque in July 2017, the Trump declaration on Jerusalem in December 2017, and the recent events related with the transfer of the American embassy and the “March of Return” in Gaza—the Turkish response included harsh statements against Israel, a call to a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries in Istanbul, and threatening Israel with a possible damage to the bilateral relations.
To date, these moves were mostly symbolic in nature. However, they eroded the trust—which was already poor—between Israel and Turkey, stirred anger among the masses, led to verbal clashes between the countries on Twitter, and slowed down the attempts to inject new content into the relations that took place following the Israel-Turkey reconciliation agreement of June 2016. The negative dynamic between the two countries was intensified, not only due to bilateral tensions and Erdoğan's declarations, but also due to an inaccurate perception of Turkey by many in Israel as an ally of Iran, in light of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian partnership in the Astana process.
Erdoğan's latest moves, as in previous cases in which he chose to raise the bar of tension with Israel, are also influenced by domestic and regional calculations. On June 24, elections will be held in Turkey, in which Erdoğan is re-running for president. Raising tensions between Turkey and other countries—not only with Israel (Erdoğan currently confronts some European countries as well)—is perceived as a move that may help his election campaign, certainly when it comes to issues that are important to many in Turkey, such as Jerusalem and Gaza.
In addition, Erdoğan's behavior also helps his regional positioning. While he is reacting harshly to US and Israeli policy, most Arab leaders are keeping a low profile. Erdoğan is thus perceived by the masses as the only regional leader who is seriously challenging Israel. He did so in the past as well, for example when he confronted President Shimon Peres at the Davos Conference during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and was later accepted as a hero in Turkey and throughout the Arab world.
The current crisis is somewhat different from previous ones because this time Turkey took diplomatic action also against the US, and not only against Israel. This may serve as a softening factor. So far, the current American administration has not shown interest in Turkey-Israel relations, but it did invest efforts in blurring the significant controversies between the US and Turkey on Syria and in creating a framework for dialogue and coordination. This should be leveraged to create a tripartite Israeli-American-Turkish policy channel that will first address the current diplomatic tension and later focus on other regional issues in which the three countries have shared interests – primarily moderating Iranian influence in Syria.
Israel's frustration with the Turkish behavior is great, and the anger at Erdoğan is skyrocketing. However, even in such times of crisis, it is worthy to remember the strategic, economic and diplomatic importance of the relations between both countries. It is not by chance that Netanyahu and Erdoğan decided in 2016, in spite of the bad blood between them and despite public criticism, to reach an agreement, and it is not self-evident for Israel to have full, even if problematic, diplomatic relations with a key regional state that has a large Muslim population. These relations should not be casually waived.
In the near future, action must be taken to contain the Israeli-Turkish crisis and prevent further escalation. This must be done through quiet, professional and efficient diplomacy while avoiding provocative measures intended to appease the public at home. There are many in both Israel and Turkey—including in the business, policy, research, and culture sectors—who value the relations between the countries and are willing to step up and help reduce the flames, as they did in the past.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is head of Mitvim —The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and teaches about Turkey's foreign policy at the Hebrew University.