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Turkey and Israel, a New Beginning Accompanied with the Ghosts of the Past

(Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey’nin yayınladığı Research Turkey Journal’da yayınlanan Türkiye-İsrail ilişkileri ile ilgili makalem)


One of the most significant developments in the instable and war-torn Middle East of today is the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. The relations between two countries were deeply damaged following the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010; diplomatic relations were downgraded, military and intelligence cooperation were frozen. It took six years for Turkey and Israel to sign a normalization deal following a diplomatic impasse. During that time, the extent of cooperation and the diplomatic ties between both countries were affected not only by domestic constraints but also by external developments. This is the main characteristics of the bilateral relations which existed since Turkey recognized Israel in 1949 and established diplomatic relations; there is always a third party that can ruin the relations. Another characteristic of their relations is that both sides don’t reveal the real nature of their ties and surprise each time with a sudden positive or negative outcome.


Turkey is known as being the first Muslim-majority country to recognize the State of Israel on March 28, 1949; some few months following its establishment on May 14, 1948.[1] It is important to note that Turkey was also one of the last European countries to do so. Ankara’s reluctance was due to the possible negative reaction from the Arab world and the sensitivities of its own population. But most importantly, in the era of bipolarity of the Cold War, Turkey feared that the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) would use this new country as its base in the Middle East.[2]
Turkey’s recognition of the State of Israel was a pragmatic move in line with its western orientation. Turkey’s tendency to maintain diplomatic relations with the new Jewish state despite accusations of betraying the Arab cause was basically due to Israel’s alignment with the West. Turkey had positioned itself as part of the Western bloc and evaluated all its foreign policy decisions in terms of the Soviet threat and with accordance with the U.S. For Turkey, Israel was a gate to the Western world. For Israel, Turkey’s recognition dispersed the religious block in the region. Israel was eager to have close relations with Turkey, a non-Arab country in its vicinity to escape the isolation it faced geographically.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Necmettin Sadak defended Turkey’s decision to recognize the State of Israel by saying that Israel was a reality, which more than 30 countries had already recognized. In response to critics who accused his government of betraying the Arab cause, he argued that the Arabs themselves had already recognized the new state, as they negotiated with Israel in Rhodes Island.[3]
From the beginning, relations between the two countries maintained a low profile publicly. The Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue were the main concerns of the Turkish side. Turkey was vocal on their disapproval of Israeli decisions in these issues.[4] However, the relations between the two countries were better than it seemed. There were working closely diplomatically, economically and even in the fields of military and intelligence.[5] Even during the low contact years of 1949-1990, Israel was modernizing Turkish planes, sharing intelligence aside other forms of cooperation such as cultural, educational and economical.[6]
In the 1990s the nature of their relation changed and became more open. Strategic considerations initiated the developments in bilateral relations. Syria’s support to PKK terrorist organization, and the unfriendly attitude of the European countries pushed Turkey towards an ally in the region: Israel. At the same time, there was a positive wave underway with the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 that ameliorated the image of Israel internationally. The faith on the peace process that was going on between Israel and the Palestinians legitimized the rapprochement with Israel in the eyes of the Turkish public.[7] However, the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 ended the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of the relations. It became clear that the Turkish-Israeli relations were inseparably related to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Even at the present, the relations between Turkey and Israel are affected by third parties, and have the Palestinian issue at its center. An amelioration in this issue impact bilateral relations directly and positively.

The Mavi Marmara Incident and the Deterioration of the Relations

Tensions between Turkey and Israel escalated parallel to the deterioration of the Turkish-EU relations and Ankara’s search for an opening to the Arab world. Bilateral relations started to decline with Israel’s Cast Lead operation to Gaza at the end of 2008. It further deteriorated at the Davos Economic Forum in 2009 when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan walked off the stage after an angry exchange with the Israeli President Shimon Peres, during a panel discussion on Gaza. Relations disintegrated further with the Mavi Marmara raid in 2010, a boat attempting to break Israel’s Gaza blockade during which Israeli marines killed 10 passengers on board (one of them later in the hospital). Following the incident, diplomatic and military relations were frozen immediately and Turkey became the most outspoken country criticizing the Israeli government. During the Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in the summer of 2014, relations between the two countries deteriorated further.
Diplomatic relations, military and intelligence cooperation as well as tourism suffered severely from it. However, in spite of these events, distrust and personal animosity between the leaders in Ankara and Jerusalem, trade survived the turbulence; bilateral trade volume rose steadily to historic levels. Business communities already knew each other and tried to manage their economic interests without political considerations, may be a valid explanation to this unexpected outcome.
In addition to that, there were still areas of cooperation between the two countries. When the civil war started and Syria became impossible to pass for land transportation of Turkey, Israel opened a land corridor. The goods came in ships from Iskenderun, Turkey to Haifa, Israel. It crossed Israel, passed through the border with Jordan, and went to Saudi Arabia. Another example is when a terrorist attack occurred in Taksim Square in Istanbul, March 2016, which killed three Israeli citizens and injured many. In that case, Turkey offered all possible assistance to Israel, giving permission of landing to two Israeli army planes to the civil airport in Istanbul to pick up its citizens. This was another demonstration that there was always an open dialogue channel between the two countries.

Normalization Agreement

Israel and Turkey signed a normalization deal after six years of diplomatic impasse and exchanged ambassadors during the second half of 2016. Israel offered an apology for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens and an American-Turk. It agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families. The deal called for Israel to pay $20 million to a fund regulated by the Turkish government. Israel has not made any fundamental policy shift to accommodate Ankara on the Gaza issue. The port of Ashdod had been always open for humanitarian assistance, with land-based delivery of aid carried out through the border gate at Kerem Shalom. On that condition, Turkey withdrew its demand on the lifting of the sea blockade in Gaza. Instead, Turkey will provide humanitarian aid via the port of Ashdod and will establish building and infrastructure projects in Gaza. Ankara’s target was to facilitate the life for ordinary Palestinians in Gaza and Israel will cooperate on that. Turkish aid shipments arrived in Gaza via Israel, a week after Israel and Turkey announced to end a six-year rift and restore ties.
In exchange, Turkish legislation will prevent any outstanding legal claims against Israeli soldiers and officials involved in the Mavi Marmara operation. With the normalization deal now in effect, the Mavi Marmara lawsuits are dropped. Israel also demanded a limit to the role of Hamas in Turkey. Following the deal, Hamas will stay in Turkey but Ankara will control their activities, which has to be strictly political.
As a bonus with the rapprochement, Israel can now participate to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) activities as Turkey dropped its opposition in May 2016. In November 2016, NATO’s Annual Parliamentary Assembly was held in Istanbul, Turkey and for the first time, representatives of Israel attended a NATO conference. Another important step was achieved in January 2017. Turkey’s Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar met with Israel’s IDF (Israel Defense Force) Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-General Yair Golan on the sidelines of NATO Military Leaders Conference in Brussels, Belgium. This was the first high-level meeting between senior security officials from the two countries since Mavi Marmara. Same week, Israel officially opened its mission in NATO headquarters thanks to Turkey’s lifting its veto.
The deal could have been reached years ago, even in the first week following the raid to Mavi Marmara in May 2010, when the third Turkish condition – of lifting the Gaza blockade – was not presented yet. Today, recalibrating its foreign policy, Ankara decided to stop using this sensitive issue to gain domestic political benefit as it was forced to re-evaluate its relations with Israel according to the facts of the Middle East.
However, even though a deal has been reached, there is no magical formula to enter a new golden age similar to the 1990s. Building mutual trust and restarting cultural events to refresh the friendship between the two societies seems to be the most important steps to proceed.
There are many explanations as to why Turkey and Israel decided to mend ties in 2016. The agreement is boosted with the possibility of building the long desired pipeline to bring natural gas from Israel to Turkey and then to Europe. But the main motive for rapprochement cannot be natural gas, but security issues in Syria and the need to have a stable, powerful, and reliable ally in the region. It should be underlined that a strategic and long-term cooperation such as natural gas cannot be achieved without the re-establishment of trust.

Public Opinion is Essential

There were some weak voices saying that Ankara should have never sent the Mavi Marmara in the first place. But in general, there is an anti-Israeli sentiment transformed to anti-Jewish sentiment in Turkey. There is no distinction between an Israeli and a Jew, thus sees every Jew in the world responsible for the actions of the State of Israel. The word ‘Jew’ is mostly used as an insult in Turkish, especially in the disputes among the political leaders. It is a common way preferred to discredit someone. Ironically, ‘Jew’ is perceived at the same time as a ‘master mind’ that controls the world. Conspiracy theories against the Jews became common in Turkey; many political disputes somehow connect to the Jews at the end. The hate speech against Israel or Jews in general can be encountered almost daily in newspapers, TV programs and the social media due to the lack of a proper hate speech legislation to fight against this phenomenon that targets mostly non-Muslim citizens of the country. The enmity towards Israel and antisemitism combined with religious sensitivities of the Turkish public may affect the course of normalization, as Ankara is not insulated from popular sentiment. The public resists to such a dramatic change, as it perceives the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as a religious one, instead of a nationalist one.
However, contrary to the Turkish public, according to a study conducted by MITVİM[8] institute in 2015, Israelis want to mend ties with Turkey and their main reasoning are; the developments in Syria, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) threat, the intermediary role Turkey could play in peace talks with the Palestinians, cooperation in the energy sector and tourism. But latterly all this anti-Israeli rhetoric caused damage on the Israeli side and resulted in a serious lack of trust against Turkey. This is why the normalization process goes step by step, mainly on trade, culture, academic ties and tourism; issues that are easier to be enhanced in the short-term. For military and intelligence cooperation or natural gas agreement trust between the two countries must be rebuilt.

Working Step by Step to Restore Ties

Following the agreement, major steps are taken to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Minister of Energy of Natural Resources of Turkey Berat Albayrak and the Minister of Energy of Israel Yuval Steinitz met on October 13, 2016 in Istanbul during the 23th World Energy Congress. This was the first official ministerial level meeting between the two countries, since the normalization of bilateral relations. They discussed the potential of the energy sector and ways of providing electricity to the Palestinians, including power stations in Gaza and Jenin.
Eitan Na’eh was appointed to serve as Israel’s ambassador to Ankara and Kemal Ökem is Turkey’s representative in Tel Aviv. Na’eh visited many trade unions and had a meeting with Mr. Albayrak in his first couple of weeks in duty. Following the exchange of ambassadors, high level visits continue to be held. Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem and Turkish Foreign Undersecretary Ümit Yalçın met in Ankara on February 1, 2017 for the latest round of political consultations between their countries, after a break of six years. Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avcı participated in the International Mediterranean Tourism Market in Tel Aviv on February 7, the first high-level official visit from Turkey to Israel since Mavi Marmara incident. Israeli hosted an energy delegation as well as a media delegation from Turkey in the beginning of March.
On top of the agenda there is the updating of the free trade agreement, accessibility to visa, and tourism. The possible visit by Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to Israel is also expected and this will surely be a landmark in bilateral relations. However, the settlement policy of Israel is a prospect to cause problem between Turkey and Israel. Recently Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs condemned Israel on the issue.


Since 1949 the relationship between Turkey and Israel had its ups and downs. Following the Mavi Marmara incident, an angry tone was adapted in the political arena and the two societies were drifted apart. Surprisingly, there was an unexpected vitality on trade volumes.
The deal promises better diplomatic and economic relations. Cooperation in military and intelligence could be positive outcomes of the normalization of the relations. Yet, a return to the military alliance of the 1990s is not expected in the short run. Israel is perceived more like an economic partner to Turkey. However, Israel’s know-how on terror and security along with its advanced military technology is important for Turkey given existing geopolitical realities.
The strategic outcome of the reconciliation will be positive for both countries facing similar threats in the region and having problematic relations with the U.S. administration. It will also be a good development for the region suffering from multiple crises at the same time. This is a rare rapprochement when everything else is sort of falling apart in the Middle East. The alliance between the two countries may help bring stability to the region. In addition, leaving a door open for a future natural gas deal, forming a new alliance in these turbulent times and using Turkey’s relationship with Hamas to prevent a future conflict in Gaza can be the real gains of the deal.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that the relations between Turkey and Israel have always been affected by the third parties. Gaza is still one of the main ingredients. Any tension between Israel and Hamas will have a direct impact on Turkish-Israeli relations given the Israeli government’s characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization, and the presence of several prominent Hamas leaders still in Turkey.

Please cite this publication as follows:
Valansi, K. (May, 2017), “Turkey and Israel, a New Beginning Accompanied with the Ghosts of the Past”, Vol. VI, Issue 5, pp.6 – 14, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


[1] Jacob Abadi, Israel’s quest for recognition and acceptance in Asia (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2005), pp. 5.
[2] Amikam Nachmani, Israel, Turkey and Greece: Uneasy Relations in the East Mediterranean (London: Frank Cass, 1987), p.45.
[3] Jacob Abadi, Israel’s quest for recognition and acceptance in Asia (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2005), pp. 5.
[4] Amikam Nachmani, Israel, Turkey and Greece: Uneasy Relations in the East Mediterranean (London: Frank Cass, 1987), p. 50.
[5] Ofra Bengio and Gencer Özcan, “Old Grievances, New Fears: Arab Perceptions of Turkey and Its Alignment with Israel” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 50-92
[6] Umut Uzer, “Turkish-Israeli Relations: Their Rise and Fall” Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring, 2013), pp. 97-110.
[7] Ibid..
[8] MITVIM, The 2015 Israeli Foreign Policy Index (Oct. 2015), seen on March 5, 2017

Karel Valansi, “Turkey and Israel, a New Beginning Accompanied with the Ghosts of the Past”, Vol. VI, Issue 5, pp.6 – 14, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey.


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