GABI MITCHELL, JERUSALEM
Israel and Turkey want to restore diplomatic ties, but what’s driving them to do it now?
Israeli President Isaac Herzog recently visited Ankara for a historic summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was the first high-level visit by an Israeli official to Turkey since 2008, just before bilateral relations began an unexpectedly public and rapid descent. In the 1990s, the Israel-Turkey partnership was often dubbed a “love affair,” so when I saw Herzog’s arrival amid a snow flurry it reminded me of a Turkish expression:
Kışın derinliğinde güneşin çiçeği özlediği gibi, Ben de seni özlüyorum.
I miss you like the sun misses a flower in winter
I asked myself, “Are we witnessing the rekindling of an old flame? What’s really going on here, and why is it happening now—after past efforts fell short of their goals?”
A number of factors are at play. The Turkish economy is in tatters, and with presidential elections scheduled for June 2023—the year of the Republic’s centennial—Erdoğan is searching for any route to save a sinking ship and secure his reelection. His ascent to the pinnacle of Turkish politics was aided by Turkey’s rapid economic growth in the 2000s and 2010s. Many believe a prolonged recession would spell the end of his political career (as difficult as that may be to believe).
Over the last year, and arguably since Biden’s election, Turkey has been courting Israel and other regional actors, hoping that a foreign policy shift will distract the Turkish public from their daily economic struggles and produce trade opportunities to buoy Erdoğan’s poll numbers. In November 2021, Turkey normalized diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates; it was rewarded with a $10 billion Emirati investment fund in the Turkish economy. Although Turkish culture is usually seen as high-context, that is, communication is often less explicit and direct, Erdoğan did little this week to hide Turkey’s economic interests in normalizing relations with Israel.
But it remains unclear, after Herzog’s visit, why Israel wants normalized relations with Turkey right now. Yes, reestablishing ties with Turkey is in Israel’s strategic interest. I’ve worked on this subject for well over a decade, bringing Israeli and Turkish policymakers together to discuss regional and bilateral issues, and can cite chapter and verse about why relations collapsed in 2009-2010 and why they should be renewed.
But what does the Israeli government hope to accomplish by normalizing relations with Turkey now? Herzog is a ceremonial figure, even if he had a robust political career and comes from a distinguished family. He doesn’t hold executive authority, like Erdoğan. So his visit to Ankara, while significant, demonstrates that Israel—or Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—wants to measure the temperature in Ankara before wading into deeper waters. Herzog’s visit should thus be seen as a stepping stone to enable a more meaningful set of conversations between Israeli and Turkish officials down the road. Some of those conversations are already in the works, but if Erdoğan were to visit Jerusalem and have a face-to-face conversation with Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid—who is scheduled to be prime minister in the government’s next rotation—that would signal a real shift.
Herzog’s press conference statements, unlike Erdoğan’s, weren’t focused on the “It’s the economy, Stupid” message. Instead, he spoke broadly about such themes as the shared Turkish-Israeli history, interfaith relations, and the need for a new era of mutual respect. In other words, Erdoğan and Herzog stood in the room together and shook hands, but they sent very different messages to their respective domestic audiences. Erdoğan sought to remind Turks that normalization with Israel is part of a broader effort to rehabilitate the economy, but won’t come at the expense of the Palestinian cause. Herzog tried to connect his visit to Ankara with Israel’s other foreign policy achievements in recent years, notably the Abraham Accords.
What matters more is the messages they exchanged behind closed doors. If Erdoğan’s position remains transactional, focused only on short-term economic gains, the Israeli government may ask for something more tangible in exchange—perhaps the widely discussed removal of senior Hamas officials from Turkey.
It still remains unclear why Israel is pursuing this now. After enduring twelve years of a dysfunctional relation with Ankara, Israel has managed to piece together a network of relationships with other countries who don’t fully replace Turkey, but who support its regional interests. They include Greece, Cyprus, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. The common thread is that they aren’t Erdoğan’s biggest fans, either. So what’s the incentive to support Erdoğan’s reelection campaign at this vulnerable moment, and how will that happen without upsetting Israel’s new partners? Should Israel seize the opportunity to reset diplomatic relations no matter who’s the head of state? What other incentives might be pushing Israel to consider normalization? What role does the European energy crisis and Israel’s decade-long pursuit of export routes for its natural gas play?
The elephant in the room, which Herzog mentioned briefly, is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Though Israel and Turkey have many reasons to normalize diplomatic ties, the war in Europe could prove to be a far greater incentive for cooperation than any of them. Russia’s invasion is already testing Israeli and Turkish strategic interests, and while both countries have tried to hedge between their support for Ukraine (and the West) and the imperative of cooperating with Russia, when all is said and done they may be forced to change their approach. Cooperation between Jerusalem and Ankara might allow both to diminish the challenge of dealing with Moscow in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean alone.
The Herzog-Erdoğan meeting raised more questions than answers, as these summits often do. Turkey’s obvious signal that it seeks a new chapter in relations with Israel places the ball squarely in Israel’s court. Now, Israel’s leadership team must determine what that chapter should look like and what aspects of the relationship—economic, energy, security, tourism, climate change—must be reframed in the coming decade. With Turkish presidential elections fast approaching however, the window of opportunity is closing fast.
The Herzog-Erdogan summit received quite a bit of local coverage, which is typical of the Israeli media’s focus on foreign policy issues and relations with Turkey, in particular. It was a welcome surprise, after several years of waning attention to developments in Turkey. Israelis had become pessimistic about the prospects of restoring normal ties.
The visit was an important first step. But there is a lot of hard work left to do.