Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


“Strained relations between Israel and Turkey could be reversed with diplomatic ties potentially normalized by March” said Turkey’s presidential adviser on foreign affairs in a recent media report.

Such a move would also be conducive for reconsidering the Exclusive Economic Zones in the Mediterranean Sea by signing a new maritime delimitation agreement between the two countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoyed a close relationship with Trump, but a Biden presidency is predicted to be more challenging for Ankara.

Turkish-American relations are expected to enter a tough period, at least in the short run, considering the Biden administration's sensitivity toward issues of democracy and human rights.

This is why Turkey might be hoping that Israel can soften such opposition and help Turkey win Washington's ear again.


Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognise the state of Israel in 1949 and throughout the post-war period the countries enjoyed warm relations as two non-Arab, Western-oriented powers in the region.

Turkish governments before 2002, when Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party came to power, generally fostered close ties, with widespread cooperation on defence, trade and tourism.

After years of cooperation, the Mavi Marmara accident in 2010 caused a serious crisis between Israel and Turkey. The Mavi Marmara was the largest of six vessels in a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians. Pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip were on board when Israeli forces stormed the vessel, killing nine Turkish nationals.

Since then, Turkish-Israeli relations have never fully recovered despite intense mediating efforts by the United States to rebuild ties between its two key regional allies. As a matter of fact, in June 2016 Israel and Turkey reached a deal to normalize diplomatic relations and signed a reconciliation agreement but, in January 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and Israeli security forces' crackdown on Palestinian protests saw Turkey and Israel withdrawing again their ambassadors.

Last September two Arab nations, UAE and Bahrain, who for years said there was no Jewish state, officially recognized Israel. In October Sudan and in December Morocco joined the party, giving up their decades-old position against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and agreed to normalise relations with the Zionist state. Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan publicly opposed the United Arab Emirates’ historic Abraham Accords deal, in which it became the first Gulf nation to normalize ties with Israel. Erdogan threatened to withdraw its ambassador from the United Arab Emirates over the move.

Anyway, Turkey and Israel did find common ground in the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed mainly ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. At a time when Israel is normalizing her relations with several Muslim countries, adding Turkey to the list will surely improve her conciliatory image in the international arena.


Besides regional dynamics, the Israel-Turkey reconciliation cannot be fully understood without considering energy-related factors. Energy politics is not independent from regional and strategic issues: Israel is looking to export its gas and benefit from gas wealth, while Turkey is seeking alternatives to meet its gas demand. Negotiations are expected to kick off as regards the sale of natural gas from Israel to Turkey and the construction of a pipeline that will carry natural gas through Turkey to Europe. In this context, the deal seems to be a win-win for both countries.

Nevertheless, the potential for energy cooperation requires closer assessment of the potential in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. The discoveries in the Levant Basin have introduced a new game of energy politics, as the basin has offshore territories that include the Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus. The located offshore gas deposits in Israel and Cyprus have the potential to end both countries’ dependence on imported energy.

The United States Geological Survey already in 2010 predicted that undiscovered oil and gas resources in the Levant Basin Province were nearly 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 3,450 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas. Considering that both Turkey and Eastern Europe exponentially need energy, the Eastern Mediterranean resources become all the more crucial to ensure the diversification of energy supply.

This is why the normalization between Israel and Turkey is critical. Once diplomatic relations are fully restored, the energy deals could speed up.

Erdogan motivations

Erdogan’s self-assumed role as a representative of Sunni Muslims lays at the heart of his approach to Israel: championing the Palestinian cause stems from his own beliefs about Turkey’s legitimacy as regional Muslim leader but also from the domestic and regional support he can generate each time he stands up publicly to Israel.

Nevertheless, the Turkish president’s anti-Israeli rhetoric often coincided with key political events at home as defending Palestinians wins support from other Muslim populations while defiantly confronting Israel wins him nationalist support at home and abroad.

The presidency of Joe Biden in the US is likely to see Washington take a tougher stance on Turkey’s human rights record and its involvement in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus.

Europe and the US have recently agreed to sanctions against Ankara; the former over its energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it has come up against EU members Greece and Cyprus, and the latter over last year’s deployment of Russian S-400 missiles.

Restoring ties with Israel can therefore be in preparation for a better engagement with the EU and with the Biden administration.

Who is gaining and who is losing?

Israel is likely to gain from normalization as Turkey bought a lot of weapons from Israel: Turkey's and Israel's defense industries could again go ahead together.

As for energy resources, Israel is 8 million people and can thus sell its oil and gas to the largest Middle East market, Turkey, which could also act as the pipeline, the corridor to the European Union market.

But Israel will likely be careful not to jeopardize its recent deepening ties with Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. The four countries are developing cooperation based on energy and defense, a move that observers say is a reaction to Turkey's increasingly robust stance in the region. Israeli officials say they'll be very cautious, given their suspicions over Erdogan’s true intentions.

Turkish authorities emphasize that the only way to achieve lasting peace and stability in the Middle East is through a fair and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue within the framework of international law and United Nations resolutions.

Turkish moves in Libya, East Jerusalem and Yemen are drawing Israeli interest and concern. Ankara has also established its presence and influence in Syria, Iraq, the besieged Gaza Strip, and Somalia. Israeli military and security chiefs are increasingly worried about what they term as "Turkey's expanded encroachment" in the former Ottoman Empire.

Turkey's efforts to elevate its political, economic, cultural and military interests, spreading from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, are also a major concern for Israeli allies and partners in the region: Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates and eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar.

But ultimately, any improvement in ties will need to overcome the animosity between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: both leaders routinely exchange insults, which observers say plays well with their electoral bases. With Israel likely set for new elections in March, analysts say it is unlikely there will be an announcement of any breakthrough before the expected poll outcome.

How about the United States?

Seven decades of bilateral relations have shown that when Israel and Turkey want to collaborate, they find ways to do so, despite divisions. Israeli-Turkish ties have important implications for the United States

The first U.S. permanent military base in Israel, an air defense facility established in September 2017 under the U.S. European Command, is another indication of the importance the United States attributes to security ties with Israel in the context of the Middle East, Europe, and, by extension, NATO.

The United States also has geostrategic and economic interests in a possible Israeli-Turkish-Cypriot gas deal. From a U.S. perspective, a NATO member (Turkey), a European Union partner (Cyprus), and an important ally (Israel) could be the beneficiaries of Mediterranean gas discoveries at the expense of Russia and Iran.

In the long run the United States also sees Turkey as an important regional player—large, populous, technologically advanced, and militarily capable— that can contribute to the Sunni balance against Iran. Turkey is strategically located at a point where it can play a very important role between the Middle East and the West.

Better Israeli-Turkish ties in this context would be important for advancing regional stability and rallying a regional coalition that includes both countries to roll back Iranian influence. The U.S. government can therefore push the two sides to separate their ideological differences from their pragmatic ties and to avoid escalatory rhetoric on sensitive issues.

A compromise between Turkey and Israel?

Over the past decade, while Erdogan consolidated his power at home and realised that Turkey's hopes and dreams of joining the European Union were fading away, he distanced himself from Israel.

Israeli authorities are afraid that under the guise of cultural and humanitarian work, Turkey is promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Erdogan's grandiose vision of restoring the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine for centuries until World War One. 

But Israel's biggest headache nowadays is in Libya. The country has been of an interest to Israel's intelligence and military establishment for four reasons. Firstly, because of its location on the Mediterranean. Secondly, due to its proximity to Egypt, Israel's enemy turned strategic partner.

Thirdly, Libya drew interest for being a haven for terrorists during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. After the collapse of the Gaddafi regime and as looted weapons from military warehouses were conveyed from Libya to Sinai and into the hands of Hamas in Gaza, Israel reached out to eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar.

With the help of Egyptian intelligence, which also has strong interests in Libya, Mossad officials met on numerous occasions with Haftar and his military chiefs. Some weeks ago, it was reported that Israeli weapons were sent to his forces, facilitated by the UAE, which is also supporting Haftar.

The fourth reason is a mixture of strategic and economic motives. After Erdogan decided to distance Turkey from Israel, a new regional partnership emerged. It was based on the old dictum "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Bound by their rivalry with Turkey, Israel became best friends with Cyprus and Greece. 

As part of this new tripartite alliance, the three countries signed an agreement to construct EastMed, a pipeline to carry Israeli and Cypriot gas from their Mediterranean fields to Greece and then on to the rest of Europe.

But Turkey's recent intervention in Libya stands in the way. Ankara sides with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the war against Haftar, who is supported by Russia, Egypt, UAE and Israel.

Israel worries that the Turkish move is intended to obstruct plans to build the EastMed. Nevertheless, despite the rivalry and sometimes even hostility between Israel and Turkey, the two countries leave some backchannels open. 

Whatever their differences, Israel won't be looking to confront Turkey any time soon. As Israel's then-foreign minister Israel Katz already said last year, while Israel opposes Turkish involvement in Libya, "that doesn’t mean we are sending battleships to confront Turkey".


There is no question of Erdogan turning his back on the Palestine cause or abandoning Turkey’s support of Hamas which, in Israeli eyes, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, therefore a terrorist organization.

Islamism is the lifeblood of Erdogan’s political platform but Erdogan also realizes that Turkey stands to gain by recapturing its heritage as a moderate Islamist country.

Equally, the upgrade of ties with Israel is not a stand-alone diplomatic move by Ankara. There are signs of new thinking in Ankara: Erdogan has mellowed his rhetoric toward the European partners and the European Union is reciprocating.

Turkey’s relations with Russia remain friendly and close at working level, especially at the highest level of leadership as shown by the S-400 missile deal with Russia.

Turkey condemned the recent US sanctions, but it refrained from knee-jerk reactions by stressing that Ankara still wants to be a part of NATO while maintaining its good relations with Russia and countries in the Middle East.


Erdogan’s attention turns to addressing the deepening economic crisis in Turkey, which could impact his political fortunes if left unattended and has promised to bring in structural reforms to break the “triangle of evil” of interest rates, inflation and exchange rates.

Erdogan also promised recently a slate of judicial and economic reforms, hinting to the possible release of politicians, activists and human-rights advocates, from jail.

He is conscious that his mandate and his popularity ultimately depend on his record as a transformative leader. The bottom line, therefore, is that the secret talks between Turkey and Israel in the most recent months have a much bigger backdrop than analysts are inclined to accept.

The long duration of continuous ties enabled, along the years, interaction and cooperation between multiple segments of the Israeli and Turkish societies, involving tourism, business cooperation, sport and cultural events, and academic exchange.

Cooperation between Israeli and Turkish civil society organizations can serve as a platform to exchange best practices, lead to innovative joint endeavors, broaden ties between like-minded professionals in both countries, and improve mutual public perceptions.

The changing regional landscape in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean increases the need for Israeli and Turkish experts to exchange views on developments, identify opportunities, and work together to promote better bilateral Israel-Turkey relations and regional conflict resolution.