The recent Turkish referendum, which handed enormous unchecked power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the expense of both the legislature and judiciary, has erased any prospects for Turkey joining the European Union, firmly anchoring it in the Middle East, where it’s now devoid of an Arab/Muslim regional bloc of support. Simply put, in the Middle East, Turkey is becoming isolated.
The nation faces failed states, refugees, and terrorism on its southern border. The pro-Turkish Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Nahda party in Tunisia lost power via military coup and elections, respectively. Furthermore, Iran and Turkey are backing different sides in the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar support one side in the Libyan civil war, while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates back a rival faction. Illustrating how much Turkish clout has declined in the region, the United Arab Emirates thought nothing of irritating Turkey when it recently opened a diplomatic mission in Cyprus, ignoring Turkey’s support for the island’s nominally independent Cypriot-Turkish republic.
But, there’s one nation to turn to. “Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region. And we, too, must accept that we need Israel. This is a reality in the region,” Erdogan told a Turkish reporters on New Year’s Eve 2017. Erdogan’s comment signals a dramatic turnaround in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Just eight years ago, Erdogan clashed publicly with the late Israeli President Shimon Peres in a tense exchange at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland over Israel’s brutality in the 2008-09 war in the Gaza Strip. Relations between the two countries reached a nadir in May 2010 when Israeli commandos forcibly boarded the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of a Turkish freedom flotilla sailing to the Gaza Strip to challenge Israel’s siege of the Palestinian territory by delivering humanitarian relief. Israeli forces killed eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American citizen aboard the ship. Although a United Nations (UN) investigation found that Israel had acted within the parameters of international law to enforce the blockade, it found no satisfactory explanation for Israel’s use of excessive and unreasonable lethal force.
In the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara raid, Israeli and Turkish diplomats averted a complete cessation of relations, but the leaders of both countries refused to speak with one another until U.S. President Barack Obama organized a meeting by telephone in 2013. Last year, Israel and Turkey restored full diplomatic relations after Israel agreed to apologize for the flotilla attack and pay compensation to the victims’ families. Despite the half-decade of tense relations, however, bilateral trade continued to grow.
Although Erdogan’s admission that Israel is a “partner of necessity” seems at odds with Turkey’s sympathies with Palestinian suffering, Turkish support for Palestine only arose when Turkish leaders felt confident and secure in their domain. Turkey’s borders were quiet, its economy was soaring, and the nation was upheld as an exemplary Muslim democracy. In addition, Turkey had become popular across the Arab world. Turkey’s leaders could be forgiven for imagining themselves at the helm of a modern version of the Ottoman Empire at the time, with Anatolia once again leading the Middle East. Today, however, talk of a region led by Turkey would be delusional.
Thus, Turkey’s “need” for Israel is clear: When Turkey was riding high, it could keep Israel at arm’s length, but with clipped wings, it can ill-afford to further isolate itself — least of all from the region’s military superpower. Israel is capable of providing intelligence, advanced weaponry, and influence in Washington.
In the world of realpolitik, the Palestinians count for very little compared to Turkey’s strategic “need” for Israel.
For Erdogan and his fellow Islamists, support for Palestine, particularly the Islamist faction of Hamas that rules Gaza, is motivated by ideology. Hence, it is unlikely Palestine will recede entirely from Turkey’s agenda. But, Turkey has curtailed its sympathy for the Palestinians, ensuring that it remains within the constraints imposed by Israel. For instance, while Turkey can send aid to Gaza, it can only do so under Israeli supervision. Moreover, there’s the Kurdish factor. Israel supports Kurdish statehood in northern Iraq; but has refrained from backing Kurdish autonomy in Syria, a likely byproduct of which would be emboldening Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority to pursue their own autonomy against Turkish opposition. Thus, if Turkey protests too loudly on Palestine, Israel might threaten to broaden its support for the Kurds outside of Iraq.
Amidst the current strengthening of Turkish-Israeli ties, what these dynamics represent is a return to the status quo ante. In 1949, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel and became part of the latter’s “Periphery Doctrine”: forming alliances with the region’s non-Arab peripheral nations to counteract the isolation Israel confronted from its Arab neighbors. In 1996, Turkey signed a military agreement permitting IDF fighter pilots to practice in Turkish airspace. And in 2007, Turkey joined America’s pro-Israel lobbies to scuttle a U.S. Congressional resolution recognizing the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide.
Israel has a “need” for Turkey, too. Beyond serving as a large export market for Israeli goods, Israel is also moving away from the pretense of democracy. While its actions have not been as dramatically illiberal as Turkey’s vote on April 16, the Israeli Knesset has recently passed several laws that undermine democratic norms of freedom of speech and assembly. And, as Israel shows no intention of ending its half-century of occupation of Palestine, the influence of the country’s populist and undemocratic right wing is likely to grow. As they drift away from the traditions of western democracies, Turkey and Israel might find their partnership all the more crucial for buttressing one another’s international standing.
There’s a lesson here for the Palestinians and Arabs who once pinned their hopes on Turkey. The road to liberation doesn’t run through Ankara any more than it did though Nasser’s Cairo or Saddam’s Baghdad. Turkey, like all nation-states, doesn’t have friends, it has interests. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, Erdogan’s adoption of the Palestinian cause was never sacrosanct and might be recorded as a short-lived exception to the normal state of affairs in the long arc of Turkish-Israeli relations.