Gaza violence sets Turkey and Israel back to square one

Turkey’s attempts to fix its once strong ties with Israel have been set back to square one by last month’s violence between Israeli security forces and Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Months of informal contact between Turkey and Israel testing the waters for a détente came to a screeching halt on May 8 when Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site, after protests at the eviction of Palestinians from the nearby neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

On May 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan loudly condemned Israel as a “cruel terrorist state”. And Turkish outrage intensified after Israel launched an air campaign against Hamas militants that killed 256 Palestinians, including 69 children, according to the United Nations. On the Israeli side, 12 people, including two children, were killed.

Erdoğan’s harsh remarks mean prospects for reconciliation with Israel are slim. Speaking to Ahval’s Turkey Abroad podcast, Dr Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, said she did yet consider the process dead, but “seriously delayed” for now.

“We know looking at the history of Turkish-Israeli relations that there is a strong correlation between developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how good relations are,” Lindenstrauss said.  

“When there is a crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, it usually negatively affects Turkish-Israeli relations.”

Prior to the recent crisis, Turkish officials had hinted at the reappointment of an ambassador to Tel Aviv. But even if this tentative normalisation process had been successful, it would likely have already been scuppered by the violence in Gaza, Lindenstrauss said.

On May 11, Turkey rescinded an invitation for Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz to join a diplomatic conference in June. It would have been the first major visit to the country by an Israeli government official since relations soured in 2018.

Lindenstrauss said the incident showed that a Turkish ambassador is unlikely to have lasted long in Tel Aviv,

The ongoing impact of the Israel-Palestinee conflict meant Israeli officials were “not that enthusiastic” about Turkish overtures, which they regarded as unsustainable, she added.   

For all its strong words, Turkey’s ability to influence events in Gaza remains largely dependent on relations with Israel.  During similar fighting in 2014, Israel allowed Turkey to send aid to the Palestinian enclave and evacuate local casualties for treatment in Turkish hospitals, Lindenstrauss said.

Seven years later, Turkey’s tough rhetoric achieved little in comparison to the Egyptian-U.S. diplomatic efforts that ended the fighting, while it is likely to be the Gulf countries that fund Gaza’s reconstruction, she said.  

Meanwhile, the negative impact of the Gaza conflict on Turkey-Israel relations has implications for Ankara’s wider charm offensive aimed at U.S. allies across the region.

Not long before the recent flare-up, Turkey sent a delegation to Egypt for the first time since 2013, where both sides expressed commitment to further normalisation talks. And while Erdoğan was railing against Israel, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was visiting Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve ties.

Lindenstrauss said that any expectations Israel would prove the easiest relationship to mend underestimated the Palestinian factor, which far outweighs any of the issues between Turkey and its Arab rivals.       

Ultimately, she said Turkey’s success would depend on the sincerity of its efforts, which may simply stem from “an attempt to sabotage some of the counter-alliances that have evolved in the Middle East”.

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