Ankara analysis

Status quo likely in Israel-Turkey relations, regardless of who wins Turkish election

Regardless of the outcome of Turkey’s presidential election, relations with Israel appear stable, for now, according to analysts

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Flags fly over Taksim Square showing Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and CHP presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu on May 13, 2023, in Istanbul, Turkey.

As Turkey heads to a second round of voting for its president on Sunday, Israelis are watching the election closely and hoping that whomever emerges victorious will continue building, or at least maintaining, the fragile diplomatic ties recently refreshed between the two countries.

Most predict that the incumbent president, Turkey’s long-serving conservative leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will once again prevail. But the fact that this election came down to the wire – an unprecedented run-off against opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of a mostly liberal and secular coalition and a member of the country’s tiny Alevi sect – shows the sharp divisions in a country dogged by a struggling economy and still reeling from a deadly earthquake that killed some 50,000 people.

In the parliamentary vote, Erdogan’s Islamist party, the People’s Alliance or AKP, together with the nationalist MHP won the majority of seats. Should Kilicdaroglu win the run-off, AKP’s showing in the election would give his coalition little power to steer the country in a new direction — or change diplomatic relations with Israel.

The ability of Erdogan, a conservative Islamist who is often forthright and vocal in his criticism of the Jewish state even when relations are improving, to win reelection is arguably good for Israel, analysts and experts watching the election closely told Jewish Insider. All of them agreed that regardless of the outcome, there will be little change to the shaky but now steady diplomatic ties between the two regional nations.

“First off, I think it’s more likely than not that Erdogan wins, but let’s not write off the opposition just yet,” Sinan Ciddi, a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), told Jewish Insider. “But let’s say that Erdogan does win, I don’t think there will be any major changes from the, at least, rhetorical desire to rebuild substantive ties with Israel.”

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkish expert based at Tel Aviv University, agreed with that assessment, telling JI that because the decision to normalize ties with Israel was made by Erdogan himself  – after more than a decade of frosty diplomacy ­­– it is unlikely that he will upend the relationship again anytime soon.

“If you asked me before the normalization, my answer would be very different,” said  Cohen Yanarocak. “But the current normalization architect is Mr. Erdogan and despite recent tensions in the Gaza Strip, on the Temple Mount, or with Lebanon, we are still seeing that the current Turkish government is willing to preserve that normalization.”

“The most important factor here is the Turkish economy,” Cohen Yanarocak emphasized. “It was exactly because of the turmoil in the Turkish economy that Erdogan decided to normalize his relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in order to attract money from the Gulf.”

“One of the most important conditions of this normalization was that Turkey had to make its foreign policy compatible with the needs of the Abrahamic Accords spirit,” noted Cohen Yanarocak, referring to the 2020 normalization agreements Israel signed first with the UAE and Bahrain, and later with Sudan and Morocco. “That is why we saw Erdogan first normalize relations with Israel and then mend ties with [Egyptian president] Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.”

He emphasized, however, that “Israel is only a tiny piece of Turkey’s foreign policy.” And, as long as the Turkish economy remains weak, he added, “I really don’t think that Mr. Erdogan will escalate the situation vis-a-vis Israel because he needs harmonious relations with all countries in order to attract more money.”

FDD’s Ciddi also said he believed that Erdogan was interested in preserving the renewed ties, even though his conservative, mostly Islamist, base are not fans of the Jewish state.

“I think he would like to have some sort of relationship with Israel different from what it was previously,” he said. “That [tension] only complicated life for him and he thinks that it essentially makes it more problematic for him in terms of his relationship with the United States.”

In a scenario where Kilicdaroglu manages to defeat Erdogan, Ciddi said his alliance might be a touch warmer, more genuine and more professional in its approach to Israel, despite election campaign statements made by the opposition leader to the contrary.

“I suspect [Kilicdaroglu] said that because he didn’t want to be accused of being a Zionist or an Israeli lover by the other camp,” Ciddi theorized. “If you look at the foreign policy team of that alliance, it includes retired ambassadors who have a long history of belief in a robust relationship between Turkey and Israel.”

But Cohen Yanarocak pointed out that even if Kilicdaroglu is successful, the parliament will still be controlled by Erdogan. “It means we will see a political deadlock, and I really don’t think that while there is a political deadlock, a future Turkish government would be interested in initiating a deliberate political crisis with Israel,” he said.

Israel and Turkey have had a tumultuous relationship more or less since Erdogan’s rise to power as the country’s prime minister 20 years ago. But they share multiple regional interests, including concern about Iran’s nuclear program and an interest in searching for additional natural gas sources in the Mediterranean Sea.

In 2010, following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in which Israeli forces killed nine Turkish activists — including one Turkish American — attempting to reach the Gaza Strip, Erdogan suspended all diplomacy with Israel. 

Ties were partially restored six years later after Israel’s discovery of natural gas but grew strained again in 2018 when the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking deadly protests along the Gaza border. That violence, which saw some 61 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops, prompted Turkey to urge Israel’s ambassador to leave the country, forcing him to undergo a humiliating security check at the airport that was broadcast on social media.

After the signing of the Abraham Accords and in light of his country’s deepening economic woes, Erdogan began signaling once again a desire to improve relations. Eventually, a visit to Ankara by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in March 2022 – the first high-level diplomatic visit to the country in more than a decade – seemed to signal a new start.

“This is a very important moment in the relations between our countries, and it is a great privilege for both of us to lay the foundations for the development of friendly relations between our countries and our people,” Herzog said following his meeting with Erdogan at the presidential palace.

Erdogan told Israeli and Turkish reporters that he saw the historic visit as “a turning point in relations between Turkey and Israel.”

Several months later, last December, Turkey once again accepted the credentials of an Israeli ambassador, Irit Lillian, on its soil, and in January of this year, after a four-year absence, a new Turkish ambassador, Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, finally took up his position at the helm of the embassy in Tel Aviv.

“Erdogan has been in power for more than 20 years and we’ve had ups and downs with him; there’s even been times when we thought the relationship would end completely,” observed Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, who also believes he will win the vote again this week.

“Erdogan expressed his wish to reset relations with Israel during [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous term, even though it’s true that relations were normalized under the government of Bennett-Lapid,” she added, referring to Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who headed the previous Israeli government. “Herzog has played a vital role in pushing ahead this process and still sees it as his role to keep these relations intact.”

The efforts have paid off, noted Lindenstrauss, pointing out that Turkey is one of Israel’s largest trading partners to the tune of some $8 billion, and more than 800,000 Israeli tourists visited the country last year, a sharp increase over pre-COVID-19 numbers. The two states also share intelligence and when the earthquake struck in February, Israel immediately sent its top search-and-rescue teams to the area.

Despite this, Lindenstrauss warned that the polarizing election, which shows cracks in Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule, combined with the fact Netanyahu’s current government is the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, “has an explosive potential.”

“Turkey sees itself as one of the voices of the Palestinian cause in the international arena,” she said. “Erdogan has put emphasis on the issue, and in the past has made very strong statements against Israel, so it is very clear that at some point there will be another outburst by him.”

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