Turkey and Israel: real rapprochement?
One of the most interesting developments in the relations among Middle Eastern countries is the rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv, after some years of tension. Back in the 1990s, the rapport between Turkey and Israel was idyllic. They held joint military exercises, co-operated on security and enjoyed the benefits of an intense trade exchange. The relationship remained stable in the first years of the Erdoğan Government (elected in 2003) and until 2009.
Many of us certainly remember the Prime Minister’s tirade against Shimon Peres, then President of Israel, during the World Economic Forum in Davos. Erdoğan called Israel a gangster State – a criminal, in fact. Peres looked unperturbed, while the unlucky moderator tried in vain to contain the Turkish guest.
«Actually, this event is best explained in the context of a general re–alignment of Turkish foreign policy. In 2009, Ahmet Davutoğlu entered the stage [as Foreign Affairs Minister]. He devised the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy. At the time, Turkey was trying to reconnect with its Arab neighbours. In light of this, a hostile rhetoric towards Israel made sense,» Matteo Colombo, researcher at ISPI, told L’Indro.
Erdoğan was eager to play the leading role on the Middle Eastern stage. He wanted to raise as a Muslim leader capable of protecting his Muslim brothers from their enemies. David Rosenberg, writing on ‘Haaretz’, calls his aspiration ‘neo-Ottoman designs’.
Anyhow, Ankara cancelled the joint military exercises and the relationship was set on a steep decline. On May 31, 2010, Israel attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a six-vessel fleet aimed at breaking the Israeli blockade on Gaza, in international waters. The clashes on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara resulted in 10 casualties. All of them were Turkish citizens. Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel and expelled the Israeli representative.
«It is interesting to note that data on trade show an increase, rather than a halt. Israeli companies continued to operate in Turkey and vice versa. Notwithstanding Erdoğan hostile rhetoric, the ties between the two countries were never broken, at least on the business level – also, it seems that there have been contacts between the armies, » explains Colombo.
The thawing of relations does not surprise international observers. Starting in December, Ankara and Tel Aviv resumed talks to re-establish diplomatic relations; the re-opening of their respective diplomatic delegations might be close.
It remains to be explained why and why now. Colombo proposes two lines of reasoning. «First, Turkey’s foreign policy failed. » The Arab Spring buried Ankara’s grand design to be a constructive and neutral mediator. Furthermore, its stances on the different stages antagonised some of the other regional actors.