July 15, 2024

Istanbul, Turkey – The mounting death toll in Gaza has seen Turkish politicians, especially President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, become increasingly direct in their criticism of Israel.

Erdogan recently said he had severed ties entirely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s onslaught, although he did not lower the level of communications between the governments.

“Netanyahu is no longer someone we can talk to. We erased him and threw him away,” the president told reporters as he returned from an overseas trip on November 3.

A freeze on several fronts

Erdogan’s comments suggest he has “thrown into the deep freezer, if not ditched altogether, the rapprochement that Turkey and Israel had been pursuing,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president at political risk advisory group Teneo.

Those efforts at mending ties followed a decade of tensions, after Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid ship, in 2010, killing 10 Turkish activists. The vessel was trying to break Israel’s blockade and deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza.

On November 4, Turkey’s foreign ministry recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv, citing Israel’s refusal to accept a ceasefire, “continuing attacks against civilians”, and denying free entry to humanitarian aid.

It was the culmination of a sharp dive in ties since October 7.

On October 20, Erdogan said Israel’s operations amounted to “genocide”. At a rally on October 28, Erdogan referred to Israel as a “war criminal” over its bombardment of Gaza since Hamas’s cross-border assault three weeks earlier.

That same day, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen issued a formal recall of all Israeli diplomats from Turkey. The volume of trade between the two countries has also dropped by 50 percent since October 7, Turkey’s trade minister, Omer Bolat, told a news conference in Kuwait last week.

The fracture is the latest in Turkey’s often stormy but generally beneficial relationship with Israel since its establishment as a state in 1948.

Early recognition of Israel

The relationship between Turkey and Israel since the latter’s formation has generally been characterised by warmer ties.

Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognise Israel’s sovereignty in 1949, less than a year after it declared independence. Ankara officially opened its first diplomatic office in Israel in 1950.

Continued Palestinian support

Still, Turkey’s support for Palestinian self-determination has been constant throughout, even as it has tried to keep relations with Israel afloat.

During the 1967 Six-Day War, Ankara joined calls for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian land it occupied — the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights — but resisted demands from Arab states to sever diplomatic links with Tel Aviv.

In 1979, Yasser Arafat travelled to Ankara to open the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office. The following year, relations with Israel were again strained over what Turkey called Tel Aviv’s “unconciliatory” policy, which included Israel’s decision to claim Jerusalem as its capital.

But when Turkey recognised Palestine as a state in 1988 — becoming the first country with diplomatic ties with Israel to do so — it declined to grant the Palestinian envoy full diplomatic status, after Israeli complaints.

Shared interests with Israel

By the 1980s, trade and tourism between Turkey and Israel were growing. State-owned Turkish Airlines started direct flights to Israel in 1986. In 1993, a Turkish foreign minister visited Israel for the first time.

From the mid-1990s, there was close cooperation in the areas of defence and intelligence between the two states — both of which were closely supported by the United States and shared concerns about potential threats from neighbours such as Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Two defence agreements were signed in 1996, paving the way for a strategic military partnership that included the upgrading of F-4 and F-5 jet aircraft, M-60 tanks and helicopters.

Turkey, Israel and the US participated in joint aerial and naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean until 2009.

Erdogan’s balancing act

Turkey continued with its ties with Israel after the landslide election victory for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in 2002. Erdogan visited Tel Aviv as prime minister three years later, presenting himself as a possible mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.

In 2004, Erdogan condemned Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin as “state-sponsored terrorism”, reflecting wider Turkish support for Palestinians, and Hamas in particular.

Yet, during high-level visits in 2006 and 2007, Turkey worked to resolve tensions between Syria and Israel over Syria’s involvement in Lebanon and support for Palestinian groups and Hezbollah.

In 2007, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul offered to help secure the release of three captured soldiers: Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas from 2006 to 2011, and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were both held by Hezbollah from 2006 until their bodies were returned to Israel in 2008. Israeli President Shimon Peres at the time thanked Turkey, as well as Egypt and Germany, for helping release Shalit.

The three-week war on Gaza in 2008-2009 reinforced tensions between Turkey and Israel.

The breakdown

The assault on the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara led to a diplomatic falling-out, which saw Ankara expel the Israeli ambassador.

Official ties remained frosty until 2016 when the two countries agreed to a compensation deal and a pathway to normalising relations.

But two years later, two events put a pause on those normalising efforts: dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli security forces at the separation fence Israel built around Gaza and the US decided to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Despite rekindled diplomatic tensions, business between Turkey and Israel continued to boom. Between 2010, the year of the Mavi Marmara incident, and 2021, trade volume more than doubled from $3.4bn to $8.4bn.

Over the last two years, Erdogan has sought to improve the relationship with Israel as part of a wider foreign policy of smoothing over fractious ties with regional powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Last year, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara and ambassadors were appointed in both capitals. Erdogan met Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in September and they both pledged greater cooperation between their countries.

The horrors of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Erdogan’s hardening rhetoric, however, appear to have stalled those plans.

Last month, he cancelled any plans to visit Israel. Early in the current war, Erdogan spoke to multiple world leaders and offered to mediate between Hamas and Israel. That suggestion, said Piccoli of Teneo, appeared to have evaporated in recent days.

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