Turkey - Israel Relations
Relations between Turkey and Israel have witnessed many fluctuations since their inception in the early 1990s. These fluctuations cannot be explained by looking at certain events, personalities of Turkish or Israeli leaders; or even by studying bilateral relations alone. The relationship is dictated more by the stance of either of the two countries, toward third parties. More importantly, relations are a product of the structural changes in the two countries’ operational environments.
Turkey had been at odds with PM Benjamin Netanyahu over several issues, including Israel’s attitude towards Palestinian lands. The two countries had a bitter falling out in recent years, despite strong commercial ties, expelling ambassadors in 2018 over clashes when dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces on the Gaza border. Ankara repeatedly condemned Israel's occupation in the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 25 December 2020 his country would like to have better ties with Israel, but criticised Israeli policy toward Palestinians for Ankara, adding that intelligence talks resumed between the two sides. "The Palestine policy is our red line. It is impossible for us to accept Israel's Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable," Erdogan said. "If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different," he added. "We would like to bring our ties to a better point."
Ankara slammed the US-brokered rapprochements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, with Erdogan previously threatening to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE and withdraw its envoy. It also slammed Bahrain's decision to formalise ties as a blow to efforts to defend the Palestinian cause. In 1995 an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Jews lived in Turkey. The US government estimated the Jewish population at 18,000 (July 2014 estimate). During the first half of the twentieth century, the Jewish population remained relatively stable at around 90,000. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, an estimated 30,000 Jews immigrated to the new state. An average of 1,000 Jews annually left for Israel during the 1950s and early 1960s. By 1965 the Jewish minority had been reduced to an estimated 44,000, most of whom lived in Istanbul, Istanbul, where many Jewish men operated shops and other small businesses.
The decision to create a “Turkey-Israel axis” was meant as a counterbalance to the “Iran-Syria axis” in the region. In July 1999, the Turkish Prime Minister’s office declared Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel as having become a necessity due to “Arab nations’ hostile actions towards Turkey, and their allegiance to Syria despite Syria’s support to the PKK.” From the Israeli side, it was beneficial to establish close relations with Turkey and its military. It enabled Israel to break its isolation in the Middle East; and the Israeli Air Force gained the chance to train in Turkish skies. In addition, The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) was in need of modernization, know-how and equipment during the second half of the 1980’s and was in search of new resources. During this time, Turkey and Israel started cooperating on air force projects.
In 2002, the domestic environment in Turkey changed, and the moderately Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. AKP’s new foreign policy, which required engagement with its Arab neighbors, necessitated a more vocal criticism of Israel and a more sensitive tone to the Palestinian issue. Bashing Israel was used as a political tool in 2009, 2010 and onwards by Ankara to return to the region. Turkey’s Islamist-rooted AK Party had been one of Israel's most strident critics, even reportedly providing sanctuary to prominent Hamas members.
Relations between Israel and Turkey deteriorated after the Freedom Flotilla incident in 2010, when a convoy of six ships, including one under Turkey's flag, tried to approach the Gaza Strip with humanitarian aid and activists on board. The flotilla was blocked and stormed by Israeli forces, resulting in eight Turkish citizens being killed. Turkey responded by expelling the Israeli ambassador from the country, recalling its ambassador from Israel and demanding a formal apology from Israel, as well as compensation for the victims' families.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel on August 20, 2013 of having a hand in the Egyptian military's overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi, making comments likely to further undermine efforts to restore Ankara's strained ties with Israel.“What do they say in Egypt? Democracy is not the ballot box. What is behind it? Israel. We have in our hands documentation,” Erdogan told provincial leaders of his AK Party.
There was a sharp increase in anti-Semitic protests and anti-Semitic statements in mass and social media during the conflict in Gaza in July 2014, accompanied by violence against Israeli diplomatic properties and threats of violence against the country’s Jews. The Jewish community expressed growing concern and unease over these incidents.
In July during the conflict in Gaza, then-Prime Minister Erdogan and several senior government officials made public anti-Semitic statements. Elected officials made generalized statements against Jews.
A series of protests targeted the Israeli Consulate General in Istanbul and the Israeli Embassy in Ankara on July 18. The following day, then-Prime Minister Erdogan stated the Israelis had “surpassed Hitler in barbarism.” Members of parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) joined protestors waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, who damaged the Israeli ambassador’s residence in Ankara with stones. Samil Tayyar, an AKP member of parliament, posted an online message to Jews saying “let your race be finished off, and may Hitler never be too far away.” Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek reportedly stated, “We do not want an embassy of murderers in Turkey.”
Later on July 19, a senior advisor to then-Prime Minister Erdogan called on the Turkish people to “be prudent about the Jewish population in Turkey,” and said, “It is the Government of Israel, not the Israeli people, and certainly not the Jewish Community in Turkey, who are Turkish citizens, that we criticize.” In a September 22 interview, President Erdogan said, “Our criticism is not directed to the Jews. It is only and solely directed at the Israeli administration and its policies, and no one should distort this.”
After an Israeli incursion into Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in late November 2014, Edirne Governor Dursun Ali Sahin said, “While those bandit-like people are massacring Muslims, we are building their synagogues here.” He said that a synagogue in Edirne under renovation by the government would be reopened as “only a museum.” The Jewish community released a statement saying Israeli policies did not give any official the right to target Jews of Turkey. Deputy Prime Minister Arinc said the government “did not plan to remove the worship function” from the synagogue. Governor Sahin later retracted his comments and called the chief rabbi to apologize.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu strongly attacked the Israeli government, accusing it of being insincere in wanting to resolve the crisis over the killings. In early Decembe 2010 there had been hopes of a resolution when Turkey sent firefighting planes to Israel to help put out a deadly forest fire. But diplomatic efforts faltered on Ankara's demand for an apology over the flotilla incident. Foreign Minister Davutoglu even questioned whether Israel would have helped Turkey so promptly if it had faced a similar disaster like the forest fire. That drew an angry response from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who pointed out the relief Israel sent to Turkey after a devastating quake in 1999.
By September 2011 the United States mounted a diplomatic effort to prevent further deterioration in relations between US allies Turkey and Israel. Turkey warned it would use force in the future to protect aid ships from Turkey trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Restoring Israeli and Turkish relations could help Washington’s efforts to balance Iran’s growing influence in the region. Ankara shares its close allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s concerns about an emboldened Tehran following a nuclear deal that was set to lift many Iranian sanctions. The Iran nuclear deal, which would let Tehran play a larger role in world energy markets, might be the real driving force behind rapprochement efforts.
According to reports in December 2015 citing Israeli officials, Israel will pay around $20 million in compensation to the families of the 10 Turkish activists killed by Israeli commandos. In exchange, Ankara will drop legal cases against those involved. Lifting the Gaza embargo has always been a deal breaker for Israel and a reason why previous rapprochement efforts failed.
In a sign of improving relations, a billion-dollar deal was struck in January 2016 between Turkish and Israeli energy companies to develop and distribute Israel’s recently discovered huge gas reserves. Ankara eyed those reserves to help it reduce dependence on Russian energy supplies. Ankara and Moscow remained at odds over Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane along Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015. Ankara was also concerned about Moscow's deepening relations with regional rival Iran, and fear of a resurgent Iran was another factor driving Turkish-Israeli rapprochement efforts.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed readiness to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel during his visit to the United States, Turkish media reported 30 March 2016. Speaking with Jewish leaders at a closed-doors meeting in Washington, Erdogan acknowledged disagreements between Ankara and Tel Aviv on a range of issues, but noted that they are solvable. "To do this, there needs to be a show of goodwill and true intentions. We are for the normalization of relations and the development of cooperation [between Turkey and Israel]," Erdogan said as quoted by the Anadolu news service.
Israel and Turkey announced 27 June 2016 a reconciliation deal to end a bitter six-year rift between the Mideast powers. In Rome, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on June 27 that the deal would help bring "stability" to the turbulent Middle East. His Turkish counterpart, Binali Yildirim, made a simultaneous announcement in Ankara. Relations between the once-close allies worsened six years ago after an Israeli naval raid killed nine Turks onboard an aid ship trying to breach Israel's blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Under the deal announced on June 27, the two countries will restore full diplomatic relations. Israel will pay $20 million in compensation, and it will allow Turkey to carry out a series of aid projects in Gaza. Yildirim said the deal "largely" lifted the Israeli blockade, while Netanyahu said the blockade remains in place.
The move towards reconciliation with Israel came the same day Turkey mended fences with Russia. The resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu provided Turkey with a “golden opportunity” to mend relations with Russia and other states, former Turkish FM Yashar Yakish said. “The change in the post of the Prime Minister (Davutoglu was replaced by Binali Yildirim) - this was a golden opportunity to launch new initiatives in the foreign policy,” Yakish, who was Turkey’s foreign minister in 2002-03, said.
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