Two decades of diplomacy: Turkey's shifting stance on Israel
By Can Burgaz
Turkey's stance towards Israel has undergone a remarkable evolution for nearly two decades, closely mirroring the ebbs and flows of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's foreign policies. Since 2002, Erdogan has played a dominant role in Turkish politics, a tenure marked by significant changes in his approach to international relations. Initially seeking to cultivate strong ties with Israel, his journey through diplomacy led to moments of camaraderie and confrontation. In this article, we delve into the multifaceted journey of Turkey's engagement with Israel, dissecting the pivotal moments, notable shifts, and the pragmatic underpinnings of Erdogan's foreign policy concerning this dynamic relationship.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has effectively governed Turkey since 2002. Over this extended period, there have been notable shifts in Erdogan's policies, significantly impacting Turkey's relations with Israel. These bilateral relations have closely aligned with the ebbs and flows of Erdogan's foreign policy.
Erdogan, who has an Islamist background, initially fostered positive relations with Israel. However, he virtually labeled Israel as an enemy state at one point. Although relations hit rock bottom for a while, efforts to normalize them have persisted, with a pivotal moment marked by Hamas's attack.
Dancing with Israel (2002-2008)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party secured a majority in the November 2002 elections. At that time, Erdogan, who faced skepticism from Turkey's secular establishment and the Western public due to his Islamist past, actively pursued close relations with Western countries, including Israel. This pursuit led to a significant step in May 2005 when Erdogan met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem. This resulted in the decision to strengthen bilateral relations and establish a direct red hotline.
However, tensions arose when Hamas came to power in Palestine in 2006, and Tel Aviv disapproved of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal's surprise visit to Ankara. Despite the Hamas delegation meeting with officials from Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it notably excluded a meeting with Erdogan, which helped ease the tension.
Erdogan also fostered strong relations with the Jewish diaspora in the United States. During his visit to the USA in January 2004, he was awarded the "Profiles in Courage" award, also known as the "Courage Award," during a dinner organized by the American Jewish Committee at the HSBC building.
Seeking a more active role in regional foreign policy, the Erdogan administration attempted to mediate between Israel and Syria. While initial talks were positive, the attack on Gaza by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dramatically altered Erdogan's perspective on Israel just four days after he visited Turkey.
Davos summit and after (2009-2016)
The turning point came at the Davos Summit on January 29, 2009, where Erdogan criticized Israeli President Shimon Peres during a panel discussion, and later, he left the meeting. This incident, known as the "One Minute" crisis, began a decline in Turkey-Israel relations.
In January 2010, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon hosted Turkey's Ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol, in a controversial meeting at the Knesset, where Celikkol was seated lower, causing a diplomatic incident that further strained relations.
On May 30, 2010, the Israeli commando raid on the ship Mavi Marmara, carrying aid supplies to Gaza, resulted in nine activists' deaths, deeply shocking Turkey. Subsequently, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, froze military cooperation, and attempted to limit Israel's participation in international forums, signaling a significant shift in the relationship.
During the same period, the Arab Spring emerged, bringing the winds of change to the Arab world. Erdogan was a strong leader, gaining popularity among Middle Eastern populations. His critical stance toward Israel drew attention from the Arab street.
Although Israel apologized in 2013, and it was announced that mutual ambassadors would be appointed as part of an agreement in 2016, relations stagnated after a coup attempt in Turkey.
In 2017, U.S. President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital and subsequent violence during Palestinian protests led to Turkey's summoning of its Tel Aviv Ambassador on May 15, 2018, and relations again froze.
Erdogan's previously assertive foreign policy, aimed at regional competition, began to unravel due to Turkey's deteriorating economic situation. Consequently, Erdogan initiated the process of reconciliation and normalization with neighboring countries.
Israeli President Herzog's official visit to Turkey in March 2022 marked a significant step, the first visit from Israel to Turkey at the head-of-state level since 2007. In response, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Israel after 15 years. A face-to-face meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Erdogan during the United Nations Summit in New York indicated the potential for continued normalization. However, Hamas's October 7 attack disrupted the progress.
What about the future?
Throughout his rule, Erdogan maintained a generally distant stance towards Israel, frequently criticizing the nation during crises as he sought to reinforce his image as a leader in the Islamic world. Despite the ideological tone of these criticisms, Erdogan did not shy away from diplomatic engagement with Israel when necessary. This pragmatic approach suggests that Erdogan's view of Israel is more practical than ideological.
Erdogan's relatively measured response to Israel's reaction following Hamas's attack underscores his desire to maintain relations. He seeks to mediate issues such as a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas and long-term peace. Given Turkey's current economic and political circumstances, Erdogan intends to preserve relations with Israel, recognizing the importance of diplomacy.