Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Recent violence in Gaza threatens to derail a rapprochement. Photos: AFP/Ronen Zvulun/Ozan Kose

One of the most remarkable and controversial developments the Middle East saw in 2020 was the wave of Arab states normalizing relations with their former foe Israel.

The first to end decades of rejection was the UAE, with Bahrain and Sudan soon following. In December, Morocco, too, formally cemented ties with Tel Aviv.

But the shift underway in Turkey, one of the region’s most powerful non-Arab states, could dramatically shift Middle Eastern and European geopolitics in the years ahead.

“We would like to bring our ties to a better point,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul on December 25.

This surprised many, as Erdogan has been one of Israel’s strongest critics in recent years, repeatedly condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

This included accusing Israel of “genocide” when Israeli forces killed 50 Palestinians protesting against US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital back in 2018.

“Over the years, Erdogan has made numerous anti-Israel and anti-Semitic remarks and burned many bridges with the Jewish state,” Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program with the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Asia Times.

Israel has reciprocally condemned Erdogan, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing Turkey of “ethnic cleansing” of Syrian Kurds during Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria in 2019.

Yet, as the region recalibrates its foreign relations after four years of US President Donald Trump – and with Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House imminent – Turkey has been recalibrating its regional stance.

Although considerable barriers to reconciliation remain, a thaw in relations would have major strategic consequences – with Ankara and Tel Aviv perhaps re-discovering the common interests that once made them such close regional partners.

Turkey’s drilling ship Yavuz operating in the Mediterranean Sea on August 7, 2019. Photo: AFP/Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency

Common causes

One reason Turkey might wish to restore relations with Israel is its desire to redraw maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has recently been in dispute with neighbors Greece and Cyprus.

Ankara claims that international agreements on sea territories – and the resources within and beneath them – are unfair. 

“If you see what Greece supports, it is like trapping us on our shores,” Turkish energy minister Fatih Donmez told local TV on December 29.

This view is strongly disputed by Greece and Cyprus, along with their European Union (EU) allies, who point out that existing maritime arrangements have the backing of international law via the latest iteration of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Gathering support for their position, Athens and Nicosia have also been staunch supporters of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, an organization that includes both Israel and Egypt, but explicitly excludes Turkey.

Erdogan, however, has been pushing for a regional conference – including Israel and other coastal states – to examine the boundary issue and redraw the maps in Turkey’s favor.

“If Turkey is to preserve and enhance her gains in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Altug Gunal, from the Department of International Relations at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey, said, “it has to fix its relations with countries such as Israel and Egypt, who have become staunch allies with Greece.”

In this file photo taken on November 22, 2014, then US Vice President Joe Biden (L) speaks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. Photo: AFP/Bulent Kilic

Eye on Washington

A further driver for Ankara’s softening on Israel is the US.

“Erdogan is deeply worried that the incoming Biden administration will be tougher towards Turkey than the outgoing Trump administration,” says Erdemir. “He hopes that even talk of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement may win him some goodwill in Washington.”

Turkey now faces US sanctions over its purchase and test firing of Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, but Trump has also stalled a controversial court case against Turkey over alleged Iranian sanctions-busting by one of its state banks.

“Winning back the support of the US Jewish lobby, or at least preventing it from working against Turkey, seems a reasonable course of action for Ankara,” Gunal adds.

Yet Turkey is not the most popular of states in the US these days.

“Erdogan needs more than such tactical posturing to burnish his negative image in Washington,” says Erdemir, “since Republicans and Democrats are equally wary of his policies.”

Israel, too, will take some winning over, particularly given Ankara’s support for Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that controls the Gaza strip and which is considered a “terrorist” organization by Israel, the EU and US.

Turkey has funded hospitals and infrastructure projects in Gaza, while Erdogan has also hosted Hamas leaders in Ankara.

Turkey’s military drone the Bayraktar TB2 has a proven track record. Photo: AFP/Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency

Syrian suspicions

At the same time, though, both Turkey and Israel are suspicious of neighbor Syria and its backer Iran. In the 1990s, this drove Israel and Turkey towards strong security cooperation.

“Turkey bought a lot of weapons from Israel,” top Erdogan advisor Mesut Hakki Casin told Voice of America on December 21. “We can arrange this again. Turkey’s and Israel’s defense industries can go ahead together.”

A clear recent example of how this has already been occurring is in the Caucasus.

During the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, both Israel and Turkey backed Azerbaijan, a long-time ally of both, while Iran has long been closer to Armenia.

Weapons supplied to Azerbaijan by Turkey and Israel – particularly in drone technology – played an important role in the Azeri victory.

“Turkish and Israeli intelligence services are already in contact,” claims Gunal, “and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan is said to become a mediator between Israel and Turkey.”

The new year may therefore see a new spirit in relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara, with Erdogan clearly having made the first move.

How Israel responds remains to be seen, particularly at a time when the country is heading back to the polls for its fourth parliamentary election in two years.

Gunal, however, remains hopeful. “I expect a positive response shortly,” he says, “although I don’t believe Israel will make a drastic change in its policies towards the Palestinians, which seriously annoy Turkey.”