Turkey, Israel must work to avoid falling back into crisis, enmity - analyst

It would be in the best interest of Turkey and Israel to establish a new bilateral dynamic based on mutual trust aimed at benefiting both populations to avoid falling back into a  familiar pattern of crisis and enmity, wrote Louis Fishman, associate professor at Brooklyn College and Turkish affairs expert on Sunday.

The full diplomatic rapprochement between the countries arrives as they find themselves “at a fateful political crossroads,” with looming elections, Fishman wrote in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, as he urged for if the ambassadors returning to Tel Aviv and Ankara to be career diplomats who will have experience in maneuvering future rough waters.

Following a decade of relations fraught with a string of tensions, Turkey and Israel’s leaders and the country’s peoples must maintain the current momentum of good relations and this time “do it right,” Fishman wrote.

Below is the full article:

Almost six months since Israeli president Isaac Herzog visited his counterpart Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, the two countries have reached an agreement renewing full diplomatic ties, which includes the reinstatement of their respective ambassadors.

This is good news for both countries and the region, and should be seen as a chance to move on from the constant tit-for-tat confrontations that characterized the Netanyahu years – spanning over a decade.

But despite the nonstop bickering between Erdogan and Netanyahu, trade boomed, solidifying the countries' economic ties. Just last year, trade reached a record $8.4 billion dollars, with estimates that it will top $9 billion this year. This transformed the ironclad Israel–Turkey relations in the late 1990s that had been based on ties between army generals, to a relationship based on civilian interactions, considered a positive development.

And just as important, Israel took note that despite the appearance of bad relations, Turkey continued to maintain an open channel with it on domestic security issues. This was thrown into sharp relief this summer when cooperation between each country's security officials foiled an Iranian terrorist attack targeting Israeli citizens on Turkish soil.

The swift action taken by the Turkish authorities against those terror cells provided a unique window into the close collaboration between the internal security apparatus of both countries. While Turkey is a consistently popular tourist destination for Palestinian citizens of Israel, it seems like the return of mass tourism by Israeli Jewish tourists (a much larger market) will happen soon.

Unfortunately, with Turkey living through its worst economic crisis in over two decades, Israelis should not expect to see a reciprocal wave of tourists at its doors. 

With Israel ranking as one of the most expensive countries in the world, even for someone from the average Turkish middle class, a single day hanging out in Tel Aviv would amount to taking a large chunk of their monthly salary. The value of those salaries has plummeted as the country battles a staggering 80 percent inflation rate, with some unofficial estimates calculating its true rate as double that figure.

The renewed interest in mending ties with Israel coincides with the punishing decline of the Turkish lira, now dubiously crowned one of the worst performing currencies in the world. Due largely to Turkey’s desperate economic straits, Erdogan is pushing to mend ties not just with Israel, but with the Middle East as a whole.

But while Turkey remained steadfast in its support for Islamists throughout the Arab world during the last decade, Israel made its ties with the United Arab Emirates public; and while Turkey remained at loggerheads with Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Israel reached out to Cairo to establish regional deals on natural gas, extending the hand of cooperation to Greece and Cyprus as well.

Turkey can no longer afford to sit alone and sulk. In an attempt to staunch the mounting costs of regional exclusion, Erdogan has decided to try to join this new natural gas club, which is attempting to transform the regional energy market. It is safe to say that on the energy front, it will take time for Israel to build up trust with Turkey. Ankara will need to prove that any deal would not be dashed on a political whim if there was, for example, another flare up of violence between Israel and Hamas, or other escalations, military or political, with the Palestinians.

As the only country in the region pursuing an expanding role in providing support for the Palestinians, strengthening ties with Israel will provide Turkey with important leverage.

For Palestinians, especially in Gaza, Turkey is an important outlet for university studies and a place to visit, study and reside (even if getting there, via Egypt, is by no means an easy route). Turkey's investment in Palestinian infrastructure also provides crucial services, such as Gaza’s Turkish-Palestinian Friendship hospital. In the West Bank, Turkey has invested a great deal in cultural and heritage sectors, and its continued expansion of influence there is greatly contingent on sustainable ties with Israel.

While all the details of the agreement to reinstate full relations are unknown, it is safe to say that Israel's demands to end Hamas' free movement in Turkey, especially those recruitment and planning operations for its military actions against Israel, have been met.

While it is too early to tell if Hamas is also embarking on a new strategy vis-à-vis Israel, its silence during the last round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is notable. Perhaps there is now an opportunity for Turkey to rebuild its credit with Israel to influence it to embark on a new Palestinian policy (even if this now seems a distant prospect) since clearly the decade-plus of strained relations between the two countries has hurt Palestinians more than it has helped them.

It would be a wise insurance policy for both Turkey and Israel to establish a new bilateral dynamic based on mutual trust aimed at benefitting both populations. Two obvious targets for this grassroots consolidation are culture and education, building on the mutual appreciation of Turkish artists in Israel and vice versa, and on years of interaction in academia.

In fundamental ways, Turkey and Israel are more alike than different: Not only in terms of culture, but in the very sticky issue of domestic politics. Both countries have a long history of dominant state behavior that often lashes out at the ethnic other, and whereas the Kurdish and Palestinian issues are not analogous, the state response in practice is, unfortunately, quite similar

Both countries find themselves at a fateful political crossroads. Israel is now set for November elections, its fifth in just over three years. It’s fortunate that the normalization of relations happened now before Benjamin Netanyahu's possible return to power. Turkey, too, is on the threshold of possible political change with its opposition parties now carving out a unified strategy to push Erdogan out of office in the 2023 elections, no matter how tough a challenge this appears to be.

It would certainly serve the cause of stability and consistency in Turkey-Israel relations if the ambassadors that will return to Tel Aviv and Ankara not be political appointees (an option offered by Turkey a few years back) but career diplomats who can maneuver rough waters when they occur. 

Again in the diplomatic field, while Turkey is correct to calculate that stronger ties with Israel will help them in Washington, Israel should make it clear that it will not repeat the role it played in the 1990s: Serving and lobbying for Turkish interests in D.C.

For now, as someone who has watched (and lived through, in person) the ups and downs of Turkish-Israeli relations for two decades, I will wish them both hayirli olsun – best wishes on the new relationship. It will now be up to both Turkey and Israel’s leaders, but also to their peoples, to maintain this momentum – or be swept back into the more familiar pattern of perennial crises, rancor and recriminations. My humble suggestion: This time, do it right.

Louis Fishman is an associate professor at Brooklyn College who divides his time between Turkey, the U.S. and Israel, and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. His latest book is "Jews and Palestinians in the Late Ottoman Era 1908-1914." 

This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.