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Türkiye and Israel: A reluctant return to normality in a new regional political context

09 Mar 2022

Türkiye and Israel: A reluctant return to normality in a new regional political context

09 Mar 2022

Major media outlets have been shaken by Turkish President Erdoğan’s announcement of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s planned visit to Türkiye in March 2022.[1] His father President Chaim Herzog made a historic visit in 1992, paving the way for an alliance between the two countries in the 1990s.[2] President Erdogan has been under pressure both inside and outside of the country to change the course of foreign policy, which almost paralyzed Türkiye’s freedom of maneuver in the Middle East and in its relations with the West. In this context, Herzog’s visit to Istanbul could be considered part of a normalization agenda in foreign policy that commenced with  Erdogan’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in mid-February 2022. The modalities of Herzog’s visit have been under discussion for some time now, following Joseph Biden’s coming to power. It is widely known that former U.S. President Barrack Obama was personally involved in efforts to improve relations between the two leaders, Tayyip Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu, but was not successful in brokering a deal.[3] For the Obama administration, it was critical to improve ties between these two key U.S. allies in the Middle East in order to be able to implement a wider plan of regional political restructuring. In particular, Obama’s policy of pressuring the Syrian regime failed because of these two uncompromising allies led by two stubborn leaders.[4] Most of the geopolitical plans of the Obama administration for regional restructuring suffered serious setbacks particularly because the two key U.S. allies in the region were not on speaking terms. This was an early warning that the withdrawal of the U.S. from the region would create a ‘power vacuum’ that would lead to competition between the U.S. allies. The rivalry among the allies was so intense that it would damage broader U.S. plans for the region. President Trump was not concerned with improving relations between Israel and Türkiye. Rather than strengthen the Western alliance through the mending of bridges between allies, he was more interested in improving ties with a single ally, Israel. By moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and brokering the Abrahamic Accords, he consolidated Israel’s regional power. Time revealed that the partnership between Türkiye and Israel in the 1990s was a temporary one directed at a specific threat, the Asad regime in Syria. With the eventual change in threat perception, the partnership did not turn into a long-term strategic alliance, and instead collapsed.[5] Türkiye and Israel could not sustain their alliance despite the insistence of the U.S. This partnership failed not only because of diverging interests or the intransigence of the two leaders, Erdogan and Netanyahu, but also because of the changing structure of the Middle Eastern regional system and other global developments – the growing involvement of Russia, China and the European Union (EU).

There are many issues to be discussed by Erdoğan and Herzog, both bilateral and regional in kind. Türkiye and Israel had excellent economic relations in the 1990s. Tourism, in particular, contributed a lot to this mutually beneficial economic relationship. The number of Israeli tourists to Türkiye increased from around 50,000 in 1990 to 300,000 in 1996. Faced with a dire economic situation, Türkiye expects to recover some economic benefits through the betterment of its relations with Israel. The Israel lobby was Türkiye’s key asset against the Armenian and Greek lobbies in the US. Nowadays, there are other issues such as the case of Halkbank[6]and Fetullah Gülen’s[7] influence over the U.S. administration. Israel and Türkiye also had an excellent military relationship which is beyond the scope of this paper. Türkiye needs U.S. equipment to balance Greece in military terms, but she cannot solely rely on U.S. support due to the purchase of the Russian S400 missiles.[8] Widening the rift between Ankara and Washington, the S400 crisis is the latest manifestation of the ever-growing frustration of the U.S. with Türkiye, which began particularly in the early 2000s, when Türkiye began to increasingly pursue an independent foreign policy that has not necessarily been in line with Washington’s perceived interests.[9] Given the limits of confrontation with the U.S. broader geopolitical interests, particularly in the Middle East, Türkiye is turning to Israel for the warming of relations with the Biden administration, in order to meet its need for high technology military equipment. The efforts of the U.S. to ease tensions between Israel and Türkiye and bring its allies into a coherent foreign policy line was further aggravated due to geopolitical changes arising from the discovery of large natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In 2010, the Israeli discovery of the largest natural gas reserve, namely the Leviathan field close to the maritime border with Cyprus, pushed the two sides into signing a border agreement in the same year. Delimiting their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), they started to negotiate joint exploration in the cross-border area and agreed on the Israeli company Delek Energy to participate in exploration alongside Noble Energy, a Houston-based hydrocarbon exploration company. Türkiye reacted to the deepening relations between the two countries, who were soon joined by Greece and Egypt. Arguing that gas explorations should take place within a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus conflict, with effective Turkish Cypriot participation in decision-making and revenue-sharing, Türkiye’s moves against the exploratory drillings of Cyprus increased tensions. In response to the alignment between Israel and the Republic of Cyprus – supported by Greece and Egypt – Türkiye signed a continental shelf delimitation agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)[10] and began engaging in gas exploration, threatening to increase military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.[11] The tension in the Eastern Mediterranean disproves a perspective that the Euro-Mediterranean area and the Middle East belong to different security complexes. The existing tensions between Cyprus (an EU member) and Türkiye (an EU accession country), coupled with the geopolitical transformation caused by energy discoveries, migration crisis and the Arab Spring in Middle East. The Syrian migration crisis and the geopolitical rivalry that involves an EU member in the Eastern Mediterranean shows that European security is linked to the stability and prosperity of the region.[12]

Türkiye expects to break the deepening ties between Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus for the common exploitation of the Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon reserves through improving its relations with Israel. Protesting the Exclusive Economic Zone agreements, Türkiye declared these were unilateral moves that would hamper the political climate in the Eastern Mediterranean and make no contribution to the common economic prosperity. Türkiye aimed to safeguard the interests of the Turkish Cypriots. The protracted conflicts in the region, such as the Cyprus conflict, the Palestinian issue, the tension between Lebanon and Israel, and the Syrian civil war have been adversely affecting economic relations and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean, which was once one of the richest regions in the world, uniting the Silk Road with European markets and capital. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Eastern Mediterranean has turned into a war-torn region with increasing poverty and bloody conflicts.

Relations between Israel and Türkiye were at their lowest level in May 2010, following an Israeli naval raid on a Turkish aid ship, the Mavi Marmara, en route to deliver humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip. The raid killed 10 activists.[13] This took place on the eve of the Arab Spring when Türkiye and Israel had diverging geopolitical projections for the Middle East and North Africa. While Türkiye sided with the demonstrators challenging some governments, Israel supported the conservative forces, including governments in the countries, as was the case with the Egyptian demonstrators. The attitude towards the uprsisngs in Egypt was a crucial example of diverging perspectives of Türkiye and Israel vis a vis the possibility of a democratic breakthrough in the Arab countries. While Türkiye supported the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Morsi, Sisi’s opposition against that regime gained the tacit support of Israel (and the West).[14] In a similar vein, Türkiye recognized  Hamas’ challenge against the Israeli state as a democratic one, while Israel considered it as a terrorist act, conducting military operations in Gaza.[15] The dramatic results of the Arab Spring in Syria, Egypt, and Libya would probably please the defenders of the idea that democracy can only be realized in the West.. Türkiye’s activism with its democracy not only shakes the power balance, but also threatens non-democratic regimes. Though questionable in many respects due to heavy military-bureaucratic tutelage, Türkiye’s multiparty system – in place for around 70 years now – and consolidated liberal market economy poses a challenge to the Arab political structures and societies. However, the Arab Spring showed that the historical roots and linkages are here to stay and could gain momentum when confronted with an attractive model presented in a reasonable way. Bitter social problems and the urgency for good governance to deal with them trigger changes which impact one another, causing serious domestic, regional and global repercussions.

Establishing and sustaining a democratic regime in the Middle East is a challenging matter as the situation of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria demonstrated.[16] The Iraqi case showed that a multicultural Western style democracy would be difficult to establish not purely for domestic reasons, but also since a delicate international political conjuncture would not allow it. The Kurdish autonomous government led by Masoud Barzani in Iraq declared independence with an apparent support of Israel on 25 September 2017.[17] The masses waved Israeli flags.[18] This declaration was aborted by Türkiye’s decision to veto the independence declaration. Erdoğan threatened to intervene if the Barzani government insisted on the idea of independence. However, this declaration further strained the relations between the two U.S. allies – Türkiye and Israel – as they found each other supporting opposite sides. Threatening the autonomous government with  invasion and cutting off its oil pipeline, Ankara reacted to Barzani’s decision to declare independence, considering it as a threat to its territorial integrity.[19] Kurdish masses in the streets carried Israeli flags denoting their support for the independence decision.[20] Furthermore, Türkiye’s two interventions in Syria, the Operation Olive Branch to Afrin in January 2018 and the Operation Peace Spring to the East of Euphrates in October 2019, prevented the Syrian Kurds from  sustaining an integrated northern belt of a cantonal federation. Despite Türkiye’s objection, both the U.S. and Israel supported the Kurdish political project. The civil war in Syria continues with Russian and Iranian support to the Asad regime against the opposition groups. The democratic way out in Syria would face another demise as this was not in the interest of Türkiye’s geopolitical calculations and its broader project of being a regional hegemon. Aside from democratic reasons, for Türkiye, any Kurdish consolidation of power in Northern Syria would inhibit its strategic significance and prevent it from being an effective player in the Middle East. Faced with the inability of the U.S. to change the situation in Syria and a cold shoulder from Israel, Türkiye entered into deeper relations with the purchase of the S400 missiles from Russia, the only power which has a serious leverage over the Asad regime and the ability to change the situation on the ground.

Relations with Iran again turn out to be Israel’s priority in improving its relations with Türkiye. Türkiye’s relations with Iran have been thorny particularly because of the Iranian regime’s support of the Assad regime in Syria. Until recently, Türkiye and Iran were competing over Syria’s future, a key issue not just in terms of the increasing terrorism and violence along Türkiye’s borders, but also in terms of the increasing migration pressure over Türkiye. But Türkiye’s energy needs makes the country more vulnerable to Iranian and Russian pressure. This particular issue unites Türkiye, Israel and the EU as it reveals their vulnerability against Russian and Iranian blackmail. The central problem is the necessity for strong, concrete and long-term relationships between these countries. Shortly after the commencement of membership talks in 2005, Türkiye’s EU vocation entered into a crisis due to the Cyprus problem. Türkiye’s relations with Israel began to deteriorate on the eve of the Arab Spring in 2010. Both Türkiye and the EU have tensions with Israel over the Palestinian case. In fact, the question as to how this energy issue will be resolved remains a central problem. Delinking the essentially technical energy issues from the highly political ones, such as the Cyprus conflict or the Palestinian issue, emerges as a key problem and concern, which can only be resolved through meticulously crafted diplomatic efforts.

The seeming withdrawal of the U.S. from the region brought stiff competition among U.S. allies in the region. The competition within the Western Alliance became evident when the UK initiated the Brexit process. Brexit, contrary to widely discussed justifications in the media, was more than an economic delinking of the UK from the EU. It was a geopolitical divergence of the UK from the EU, and probably the rest of the Western Alliance.  In this context, Brexit has made the British bases in Cyprus even more significant in the sense that EU penetration in the Eastern Mediterranean would require delicate coordination with British geopolitical interests in the region.[21] It is not easy to project the exact implications of Brexit in the broader Eastern Mediterranean region, including the Black Sea and the Balkans. However, with the EU becoming a crucial actor in the Eastern Mediterranean as a result of the incorporation of Cyprus, it would be difficult to claim that the geopolitical interests of the UK and the EU would be aligned. Futhermore, such a divergence between the EU and the UK in geopolitical terms could even damage overall Western interests challenged by Russian and Chinese ascendency in the region. The tensions between Israel and Türkiye are connected to Türkiye’s deteriorating relations with the EU and Israel’s improvement of relations with Greece and Cyprus. In this context, Türkiye and the UK finds themselves as natural allies to keep the status quo intact.


With the coming of the AKP to power and the start of the EU accession negotiations in 2005, there was a growing interest in Türkiye in the Arab world. Türkiye’s democracy – hitherto perceived as a farce and ridiculed as a “democracy of tanks” due to the generals’ manipulation behind the scenes – gained status as a genuine one in the wider Arab world, thereby challenging the authoritarian regimes. Türkiye as a “model country” for the Muslim world with its consolidating democracy, stable politics and growing economy echoed widely on the eve of the Arab Spring.[22] However, the coup in Egypt and the civil war in Syria and Libya changed optimistic expectations and marginalized Türkiye’s regional role. Whether as a mediator or pacifier, more than a decade of Türkiye’s pro-active foreign policy under Erdoğan demonstrates that Israel shares similar apprehensions to that of the authoritarian Arab regimes vis-à-vis Türkiye’s regional involvement. Neither Israel nor the Arab countries are prepared to see Türkiye as an integral part of regional politics.

So far, the competition logic has determined the relations among Western actors in the Eastern Mediterranean. This analysis does not offer a solution for protracted conflicts in the area, but it does offer a change of perspective: the delinking of technical matters, like the energy supply, from highly political and sensitive issues such as the Cyprus conflict and the Palestinian question, which is endemic to the region itself. Unilateral moves, such as the signing of exclusive economic zone agreements and the drawing of maritime boundaries, would bear the same result as drawing arbitrary land boundaries and would be a repeat of the same mistakes made a century ago when the current boundaries of the Middle East and North African states were drawn based on imperialist calculation. The cure for regional conflicts would likely be to increase regional prosperity. The involvement of great powers, such as Russia and China, in the region would present different characteristics. While the former would be more focused on sabotaging any change regarding the current status quo, the latter would be dynamic in terms of supporting infrastructure developments acutely needed in the region, which would increase China’s soft power. The improvement in relations between Türkiye and Israel, particularly after the Abrahamic Accords, has linked the Eastern Mediterranean with the Gulf region, but the road to peace and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean is far from rosy and full of tensions and conflicts endemic to the region.



[1] “Turkey’s Erdogan Announces Herzog to Make Official Visit in Mid-March,” Times of Israel, February 3, 2022; “Israeli President Herzog to Visit Turkey Mid-March, Erdoğan says,” Daily Sabah, February 3, 2022.

[2] Nimrod Goren, “Why Herzog is Right to Visit Turkey,” Ynet News, February 1, 2022.

[3] Ron Friedman, “Obama to Push for Israel-Turkey Reconciliation,” The Times of Israel, March 10, 2013; Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu Apologizes to Turkey over Gaza Flotilla,” Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2013; Jeffrey Heller, “Obama Brokers Israel-Turkey Rapprochement,” Reuters, March 22, 2013; Mark Landler, “Obama Shows Talent for Arm-Twisting, and Raises Hopes on Peace Effort,” The New York Times, March 23, 2013.

[4] Daniela Huber and Nathalie Tocci, “Behind the Scenes of Turkish-Israeli Breakthrough,” IAI Working Papers 1315, (April 2013).

[5] Stephen M. Walt, “Why Alliances Endure or Collapse,” Survival 39, no. 1 (1997): 163.

[6] American prosecutors accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and of documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They said Halkbank helped Iran transfer $20 billion worth of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the American financial system. See, Jonathan Stempel and Tom Hals, “Turkey’s Halkbank Can Be Prosecuted over Iran Sanction Violations, U.S. appeals court rules,” Reuters, October 22, 2021.

[7] There was a coup attempt which took place on 15 July, 2016. The Turkish government alleged that Fetullah Gülen, a preacher living in Pensylvania since 1999, was behind the coup that the United States was harboring him. See, “Turkey’s Failed Coup Attempt: All You Need to Know,” Al Jazeera, July 15, 2017.

[8] “Turkey Signs Deal to Get Russian S-400 Air Defence Missiles,” BBC News, September 12, 2017; “Turkey Finalizes Deal with Russia to Purchase S-400 Defense System,” The Times of Israel, December 20, 2017.

[9] Ali Demirdas, “Why US-Turkey Tensions Were Never about the S400 Missile System,” The National Interest, March 31, 2021.

[10] The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was established in 1983 in the territory which was under the control of Türkiye after its military intervention in the island in the summer of 1974. The TRNC is recognized only by Türkiye.

[11] Andreas Stergiou, “Greek-Israeli Defense and Energy Ties: Writing a New Chapter in Bilateral Relations,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 9, no. 3 (2015): 417-428; Michael Tanchum, “A New Equilibrium: The Republic of Cyprus, Israel, and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean Strategic Architecture,” Occasional Paper Series, 1, Oslo Peace Research Institute, Norway, 2015.

[12] Thomas Diez, “Turkey, the European Union and Security Complexes Revisited,” Mediterranean Politics 10, no. 2 (2005): 167-180; André Barinha, “The Ambitious Insulator: Revisiting Turkey’s Position in Regional Security Complex Theory,” Mediterranean Politics 9, no. 2 (2014): 165-182.

[13] Robert Booth, “Israeli Attack on Gaza Flotilla Sparks International Outrage,”The Guardian, May 31, 2010; “Mavi Marmara: Why Did Israel Stop the Gaza Flotilla?” BBC News, June 27, 2016.

[14] Türkiye’s strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood has created a robust diaspora of its members in Türkiye, but it is fast becoming a burden on Turkish foreign policy. See, Pinar Tremblay, “Erdogan’s Rapprochement with Egypt Comes at Expense of Brotherhood,” Al Monitor, July 1, 2021.

[15] “Turkey Denies Israeli Accusation It Provides Military Aid to Hamas,” Times of Israel, February 13, 2018; “Turkey Allowing Hamas to Plot Attacks on Israelis from Its Soil – Report,” Times of Israel, December 18, 2019; “Turkey’s Ties to Hamas Risk Hindering Normalization with Israel,” Arab News, January 19, 2021.

[16] Moshe Maoz, “The Strategic Repercussions of the Arab Spring in the Middle East,” in Conflict and Prosperity: Geopolitics and energy in the Eastern Mediterranean, ed. Andreas Stergiou, Kivanc Ulusoy and Menahem Blondheim (New York: Israeli Academic Press, 2017), 29-30.

[17]  Campbell MacDiarmid, “Masoud Barzani: Why It’s Time for Kurdish Independence,” Foreign Policy,  June 15, 2017; Martin Chulov, “Iraq: Kurdish Leader Barzani Claims Win in Independence Referendum,” The Guardian, September 26, 2017; Raya Jalabi and Maher Chmaytelli, “Kurdish Leader Barzani Resigns After Independence Vote Backfires,” Reuters, October 29, 2017;  Katie Klain and Lisel Hintz, “A Series of Miscalculations: The Kurdish Referendum and Its Fallout,” IPI Global Observatory, December 19, 2017.

[18] Jeffrey Heller, “Israel Endorses Kurdish Independent State”, The New York Times, September 15, 2017.

[19] Harriet Agerholm, “Turkey’s President Erdogan Threatens to Invade Iraq and Cut off Oil Pipeline after Kurds Vote for Independence,” The Independent, September 26, 2017.

[20] David M. Halbfinger, “Israel Endorsed Kurdish Independence. Saladin Would Have Been Proud,” The New York Times, September 22, 2017.

[21] Andreas Stergiou, “The Exceptional Case of the British Military Bases on Cyprus,” Middle Eastern Studies 51, no. 2 (2015): 285-300.

[22] Aslı Ü. Bâli, “A Turkish Model for the Arab Spring?” Middle East Law and Governance 3, no. 1 (2011): 24-42.

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