Israel and Turkey are inching closer to rapprochement

I am not about to guarantee that Israel and Turkey are going to normalize ties in the immediate future, but signs of a gradual warming have cropped up over the last few weeks and are worth reviewing.

On June 7, the AKP suffered a significant setback in the general elections and must now form a coalition government for the first time in a decade. I am not going to address all the nitty-gritty details here (although you should read these smart pieces by Claire Berlinski, Soner CağaptayBarın Kayaoğlu, and Joshua Walker). Sufficed to say that while President Erdoğan’s bid to reform the country’s constitution and transform the political system from parliamentary to presidential is no longer on the table, he is hardly defeated and will continue to exert tremendous control over many critical state institutions.

Still, a coalition government will undeniably impact the formulation and execution of Turkish foreign policy – and depending on the AKP’s partner, its relationship with Israel. One of the more intriguing possibilities discussed by journalist Murat Yetkin is a grand coalition between the AKP and the secular CHP (Atatürk’s party), that “wants Turkey to return to its cautious foreign policy line regarding Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Libya, and the Middle East in general.”

And although an agreement between the AKP and CHP has not been formally announced, recent headlines regarding Israel-Turkey ties lead me to believe that the potential for a grand coalition remains strong.

Just days after the election, Ha’aretz reported that Turkish intelligence instructed Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas member who has been remotely overseeing the terror organization’s West Bank operations since 2010, to scale back his anti-Israel operations (for more on Arouri, see here and here). The head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Hakan Fidan, is considered Erdoğan’s right-hand man, so the message to Arouri almost certainly is a byproduct of American pressure – and a longstanding demand by Jerusalem – on the president to adjust his country’s position towards Hamas.

Then, there is Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s decision to send a letter to Erdoğan expressing his condolences for the passing of Süleyman Demirel, Turkey’s ninth president. Demirel served during the height of Israel-Turkey relations, hosting his Israeli counterpart Ezer Weizman in 1994 and visiting Jerusalem himself in 1996. Demirel’s involvement in strengthening the Israel-Turkey bond was so significant that in May 1996, following a foiled assassination attempt of the Turkish president, the would-be assassin justified his acts as “a response to the conclusion of the military agreement with Israel.”

A photo from Süleyman Demirel’s visit to Israel in 1996

“President Demirel will be remembered as a great statesman, a president who was the first to welcome an Israeli president to Turkey, a leader who contributed to the development of the relations between our two nations,” Rivlin’s letter stated.

This was a powerful symbolic gesture by Rivlin, who, perhaps unwittingly, emulated an unbroken tradition between two countries that have experiences extreme highs and lows throughout their history. In November 1982, the last time diplomatic relations were at rock bottom (due to the 1980 Jerusalem Law, the Lebanon War, and an ongoing dispute over the death of Turkish civilians at the hands of the Israeli military that I discuss at length here), Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ulusu sent a condolence letter to Menachem Begin following the passing of his wife Aliza. Mourning the loss of his partner and swamped by his myriad responsibilities, Begin made certain to thank Ulusu.

Rivlin is one of a handful of politicians engaged on the Turkish issue at present. His decision, after years of advocating that Israel recognize what befell the Armenians in 1915 as “genocide,” to reverse his position is a clear indication of the sacrifices he is willing to make for the sake of rapprochement. As I have been told repeatedly by my colleagues in Istanbul and Ankara, symbolic gestures carry tremendous weight in the eyes of the Turkish public.

No doubt Rivlin’s groundwork contributed to efforts (recall Turkish Deputy PM Bülent Arınç’s interview with Channel 2 news in May) that set a more positive tone between the two countries, and perhaps enabled the meeting of senior Israeli and Turkish officials in Rome on June 22. According to a report filed by Ha’aretz correspondent Barak Ravid, Foreign Minister director general Dore Gold – recently appointed to the position by Netanyahu – secretly met with Feridun Sinirlioğlu, the man who has been handling negotiations with Israel over the last five years. Ravid’s report emphasized that Gold had not informed National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen and Israel’s primary negotiator with Turkey, special envoy Joseph Ciechanover, of his intention to meet with Sinirlioğlu.

Dore Gold

Dore Gold

Turkey is not the only prominent regional actor whose representatives Gold has met with since Netanyahu assigned him too the Foreign Ministry. In early June, Gold was linked to secret talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and then participated in a public event at the Council on Foreign Relations with Anwar Majed Eshki, a retired Saudi general and ex-adviser to Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The message delivered that day was clear: Israel and Saudi Arabia share a fear that the deal currently being negotiated by the P5+1 and Iran will not prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It wouldn’t surprise me, considering efforts by Riyadh to patch up ties with Ankara (and also push for reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt), if mutual concerns over the Iran deal precipitated Gold’s meeting with Sinirlioğlu.

This time last year, when the rumor mill was rife with projections that Jerusalem and Ankara would bury the hatchet, an outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip scuttled the prospect of rapprochement. Turkey and Israel may share strategic interests in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to the containment of the Syrian civil war and the prevention of an Iranian nuclear program, however Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians will continue to dictate the terms and pace of reconciliation. That said, considering the negative atmosphere which has engulfed the relationship over the last five years, such encouraging signs shouldn’t be ignored.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey