The title gives away a reality which persists between Turkey and Israel and their overall dynamics and the shows the true nature of the bilateral relationship between the two states. History tells us that every time the two states make a plunge to further consolidate their terms; something drastic takes place which propels their relationship back to ground one.
While there is certain dependence between the two sides, especially in terms of economics, there is much more which exists as a gap in their overall relationship dynamics. History tells us that the two states had a good beginning in terms of forging bilateral relations, as Turkey became the first Muslim majority country to officially recognize the State of Israel in 1949. But despite this, the actual sense of closeness was lacking and this was large because the Turkish side was hesitant and cautious in an all-out relationship with Israel. The political semantics of that era was marred with Arab-Israel wars and conflicts and Turkey was in no position to openly challenge the Arab stance or the Israeli. In fact on the occasion of the Suez Crisis, Turkey did manage to downgrade its relations with Israel. This was the era when covert strategic ties were formed between the two.
In the Cold War period, the ties between the two sides deepened. The core for the then strategic Turkish-Israeli cooperation was largely a marriage of convenience for both and this continued somewhat because of the mutual perception of Syria being a security threat. In the quest to streamline it’s military to improvement and to address various security challenges, Turkey profited from Israeli disposition to supply otherwise unavailable weapons. Israel in turn, gained as Turkey became a profitable market for its defence industry.
As both sides entered 2000’s their relationship became more prone to ups and downs. The Intifada and the brutality of IDF were not well received by the Turkish population and the diplomatic relationship became somewhat jostled. Finally, when in 2002 AKP’s victory and Erdogan becoming the Prime Minister shifted a lot of things between the two sides.
The PM Erdogan made no excuse in hiding the anti-Israel sentiment and things became more strained when the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was assassinated and Israel was said to have had a part to play in it. This act was denounced as a ruthless act of terror by the Turkish PM. But during this period, the economic, trade or strategic ties which included military trade between the two sides was not diminished. This shows that even during strained times, both sides have the capacity to also keep stability instilled in terms of economics.
But Palestine issue and the Hamas-Turkish relationship had always been two pinching stones in the Turkish-Israeli relations. But as Sisyphus would have it, Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, and the ensuing meeting between Hamas leaders and Turkish government officials at AKP headquarters upset the Israeli-Turkish balance. Intensification of ferocity in Gaza and the Second Lebanon War led to anti-Israel rhetoric and widespread protests in Turkish cities. But even then the Israeli-Turkish ties were sustained; in 2007–2008, Turkey officially mediated highly sensitive and secretive talks between Israel and Syria, which reportedly were on the verge of being fruitful.
But all went to failure as Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008 which resulted in another upset and setback to the Turk-Israeli relations. There was a war of words between leaders of the two sides which turned into a diplomatic situation especially when Erdogan exchanged heated words at the Davos Conference.
In 2010, the Mavi Marmara incident took place and the bilateral relations were at an all-time low. The Gaza Freedom Flotilla issue was so intense that it was claimed that the two sides will cut-off diplomatic ties once and for all. But instead of cutting off ties, Turkey downgraded its ties with Israel. With international involvement in order to ease out the tension between the two sides, things got better but never normal between the two sides. As it happens, in 2016 there was a mutual exchange of ambassadors but even today the terseness of the relationship between Israel and Turkey is seen and has once again risen up.
While the surface level reasons begin from the time in 2018 when a Turkish TV series depicted Israeli forces as murderers, the whole situation has turned into a dangerous tango between them. The main discord still remains to be Palestine as Israel has once again increased its brutalities, this time Turkey has chosen to voice out its concerns. While the Turkish leadership has claimed that Israelis are brutally and falsely murdering innocent Palestinians, claimed the Israeli ‘occupation’ as ‘lawless’, called out Benjamin Netanyahu as being a ‘cold-blooded murderer’. The Israeli side has retorted by claiming the Turks as being ‘occupiers of Cyprus and killers of Kurds and an anti-Semitic dictator’. There was also the insinuation that this does not put Turkey in a good position to preach about righteousness towards Israel.
This war of words over Twitter has now turned into a deep diplomatic issue between the two sides. And while there is no such rationale as to why both sides have taken up this strand of policy towards each other; four things can be inferred out of this. Firstly that the Sisyphean nature of the relationship is more real than ever; the rapid ups and downs between the two sides where in terms of politics the two are poles apart but in terms of economics, leeway can be made.
Second, the political dimension of Turkey and Israel are different as both have variant agendas and interests and while the Turkish interest is suddenly tilting towards building a new regional order in the Middle East, this can be a problem. The growing relationship between Israel, Egypt, KSA and UAE at a time when Turkey is showing its prowess in the region and is not on good terms with either state is pointing towards the positioning of Turkey in the regional foray of which Israel is an ardent part and this cannot be undone but will only add to the conflictual relation between Israel and Turkey.
Third that Turkey under Erdogan has taken up the Palestine cause now more than ever and not just in terms of the Qatar-Turkey-Hamas triangle but as a whole, the Palestine crisis is and will be given a new direction and perhaps dictation by the hands of President Erdogan in the coming years.
Finally, despite all of this, the need to sustain economics might become a reality as Turkey will need to come out of its sanctioned economy and Israel can still be a good strategic partner. But this time it seems that the otherwise economics-driven relationship between Turkey and Israel might get shadowed by the stringy and strong clash of interests and the clash of words.
In any case, the nature of the relationship is truly Sisyphean and as soon as strong rapprochement or durability is approached, the stone rolls back to the ground. In this case, one cannot say that Sisyphus must be happy, but only dread at the undue and unstable as well as unpredictable future course of actions. Both states are powers in terms of military and currently, both sides have stakes in managing their own interests and security. If aggrandized, this will turn into a full-blown conflict.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.
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Amna Javed is PhD Scholar at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. She is an expert on Middle Eastern politics with a focus on Turkey.