Picture: AFP – Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a press conference in Ankara, on March 9, 2022. Erdogan hopes that normalisation with Israel will bring economic benefits, as well as encourage Washington and American investors to look more kindly on his ailing economy, the writer says.
By Na’eem Jeenah
Last week’s announcement by Turkey and Israel that they were normalising diplomatic relations after a four-year break was unsurprising, considering recent warming relations between the two countries, and Turkey’s reconciliatory foreign policy in the past year.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog had visited Turkey in March, the first visit by an Israeli leader in 14 years. This was followed by an exchange of visits by the two foreign ministers, and numerous phone calls between senior leaders on both sides. The two states also signed a civil aviation agreement in July, paving the way for Israeli airlines to fly to Turkey for the first time since 2007. The main driver for Turkey is its economic crisis, with inflation at over 70 percent and a devalued currency that has increased the suffering of the masses of poor Turks.
President Recep Erdogan and his ruling Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) understand that unless the economy improves soon, the elections next year will be more challenging for them than ever. Turkey has thus made reconciliatory moves towards a number of countries in the region with which it had had bitter relations, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, now, Israel, hoping for greater investment and a strengthened economy.
Consequently, billions of investment dollars have flowed into the Turkish economy. Erdogan hopes that normalisation with Israel will bring economic benefits, as well as encourage Washington and American investors to look more kindly on his ailing economy. In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to recognise Israel, less than a year after the Zionist movement expelled more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and established the Israeli state. The mutually-beneficial relationship developed in economic, diplomatic and strategic directions.
In the 1950s, it expanded into intelligence and military co-operation, and both states expected their alliance to provide strategic protection in the face of hostile neighbours. Despite Turkey recognising the PLO in 1974, and strong sympathy of its population with the Palestinians, its relationship with Israel deepened, bolstered by a pro-Israeli Turkish military, which effectively ran the country and its foreign policy, and which benefited from military technology transfers, intelligence co-ordination, counter-terrorism training, and the training of Israeli Air Force pilots.
Turkey spent billions of dollars purchasing Israeli weaponry and became the Israeli arms’ industry’s largest customer. These close relations persisted until the 2000s. Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP began taking a somewhat tougher – some may say schizophrenic – line on Israel.
Rhetoric against Israel’s occupation hardened, but substantive relations persisted. But 2010 saw a dramatic change, after Israel’s brutal attack on the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, part of the “Freedom Flotilla” that attempted to break Israel’s hermetic siege on Gaza. Israeli commandos murdered nine Turkish citizens on the ship, and Turkey broke off diplomatic relations, demanding compensation and an apology.
Relations were, however, restored in 2016, but were severed again in 2018, when Israel murdered more than 100 Palestinians who had participated in the Great March of Return in Gaza. Turkey, meanwhile, gave refuge to numerous Palestinian activists, including leaders in groups such as Hamas and its armed wing, al-Qassam Brigades, allowing them to operate relatively freely. The strain in diplomatic, military and intelligence links did not, however, mean a termination of relations.
Turkish Air continued flying to Tel Aviv, ferrying the third largest number of passengers into Israel compared to other foreign airlines; trade and tourism flourished, with trade in 2021 exceeding $8 billion. Both states hope to benefit from the recent toenadering (translation – rapprochement).
For Israel, expanding relations with Muslim-majority countries provides it a legitimation that, it believes, will isolate the Palestinian people and make them more vulnerable to the Zionist political, ethnic and cultural project. Furthermore, 40 percent of Israel’s oil is sourced from Azerbaijan, via Turkey, a critical supply that must be protected.
Turkey hopes that new relationships with Israel (and Saudi Arabia, UAE) will help alleviate its economic crisis. A more reconciliatory foreign policy towards certain states, Erdogan believes, will attract investors. Erdogan has also proposed a new gas pipeline connecting gas fields Israel controls to Europe via Turkey, which will massively benefit both states.
Normalisation will also help lift Turkey’s objections to Israel’s involvement in Nato activities, and to Nato purchasing Israeli technology, a profitable venture for the Zionist state. It is unlikely, however, that Israel’s hope to recruit Ankara into an anti-Iran alliance will materialise. Turkey’s relations with Iran, as with Israel, are based entirely on what it perceives as its national interests, and it is not in Turkey’s interests to make an enemy of Iran, on whom it is dependent for around 30 percent of its gas needs, and with whom it has other strategic partnerships.
Erdogan announced in July that Turkey will be increasing its gas and oil imports from Iran. Turkey sees no contradiction in maintaining good relations with Iran and Israel, or the US and Russia, at the same time. The other possible sticking point between the two states is Turkey’s insistence that it supports the Palestinian people.
Immediately after the normalisation announcement, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, promised that Ankara would continue supporting Palestinian rights. Two weeks earlier, after Israel’s three-day onslaught on Gaza, Erdogan accused Israel of “killing children and babies”, and called it an “apartheid” and “terrorist” state.
And leaders of Hamas, whose members make up a large number of the Palestinians in Turkey, insist that their relationship with the Turkish government has not changed. Many Palestinians, however, feel that Turkey is yet another Middle East state that has betrayed the Palestinian people and increased their isolation on the world stage, especially after the Abraham Accords.
Jeenah is executive director of the Johannesburg-based AfroMiddle East Centre