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After Normalization Deal, What Now for Israeli-Turkish Relations?

“If you ask any Jewish person in Turkey for three things they wouldn’t want to lose in their lives, they will say: family, money and good Turkish-Israeli relations,” says Ivo Molinas, who for the past 12 years has served as editor-in- chief of Salom – a 75-year-old Jewish weekly newspaper based in Istanbul. “Good relations make life easier for Jewish people than the bad eras,” he adds. Turkish-Israeli relations have been tumultuous in recent decades and Molinas is one of thousands of Turkish Jews hoping last month’s resumption of full diplomatic ties between the two countries is a sign of better things to come.

“Turkey’s approximately 15,000 Jews never want relations with Israel to go bad because Turkey is their home country and Israel is the country their heart is attached to,” he says. And with Ankara and Jerusalem now aiming to maintain better ties, Molinas hopes his team of approximately 100 writers – all of whom write for Salom on a voluntary basis – can educate the broader non-Jewish community in Turkey about Turkish Jews.

It is a rich history that dates back to the fth century B.C.E., and helps explain how, in 1949, Turkey became the rst Muslim-majority nation to recognize the nascent State of Israel. Last month’s normalization agreement between Turkey and Israel marked the latest development in a broader diplomatic flurry in the Middle East that has included the Abraham Accords (when Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco), the UAE and Kuwait restoring ties with Iran, and Turkey itself pursuing a rapprochement not just with Israel but also with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and possibly even Syria. In the wake of the announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid issued a statement that “upgrading relations will contribute to deepening ties between the two peoples, expanding economic, trade and cultural ties, and strengthening regional stability.” 

Molinas, who also runs a chemical-exports business, hopes the regional stability includes Turkey’s Jews. He vividly remembers the local Jewish community feeling isolated during recent times of tension, including then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s heated exchange with Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres in 2009 and the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2010, when Turkish activists were killed by Israeli forces during a lethal o shore clash. Tensions also flared more recently in May 2018, after then- President Donald Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, leading to Israel and Turkey expelling each other’s ambassadors following deadly protests on the Gaza border.

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Economic necessity

While normalization isn’t expected to result in an immediate economic windfall for either Israel or Turkey, the move represents a regional trend of alleviating political and diplomatic tensions to remove economic and commercial constraints. “It’s as if many of the region’s ffcials came to the realization that you don’t need to be best friends to do business together,” says Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He believes the COVID-induced economic downturn accelerated normalizations efforts, especially as Turkey’s inflation rate is currently hovering at around 80 percent, its lira has been one of the worst-performing currencies in the world and Ankara is actively seeking foreign investment. “For Israel especially, there’s the strategic alignment component,” Mogielnicki says. “If you want to keep building a strong regional coalition against Iran, you’re going to be looking at what progress you can make with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.”

But Turkish-Israeli tensions haven’t just existed at the diplomatic level. “When there are are-ups of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, some hateful and violent acts have been aimed at Turkey’s Jewish community,” says Brooklyn College associate professor Louis Fishman, who works on Turkish, Palestinian and Jewish a airs. In its latest report, for instance, the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that Turkish “government officials at various levels expressed antisemitism through statements and social media posts. In May [2021], Turkish President Erdogan used antisemitic language in a televised speech, prompting strong condemnation from the U.S. Department of State.”

According to Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish journalist and senior policy fellow at the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations, “there is deep-seated antisemitism in Turkey that you can also see in other Middle Eastern societies.” Aydintasbas goes further by saying Turkey has an institutional skepticism of non-Muslim minorities that dates back to the late period of the Ottoman Empire. “It’s a myth that the republic in Turkey is color-blind when it comes to religion,” she says. “Non-Muslim minorities, including Jews, have always had to face discriminatory policies here, just like Greeks and Armenians. Let us not forget that minorities were sent to work camps in Turkey in the 1940s and were subject to extra taxation (jizya). Having said all that, when the Turkish government gets along with Israel, Turkish Jews tend to have an easier time.”

Despite political setbacks between both nations, Israel has long enjoyed a strong commercial relationship with Turkey. In fact, Turkey is one of Israel’s top ve trading partners, and Israel is one of Turkey’s top 10 export markets with trade reaching a peak of $8 billion in 2021. The resumption of diplomatic ties presents opportunities for even further commercial and tourism growth, according to Shira Efron, head of research at New York-based research group the Israel Policy Forum. She notes that Turkey recently won tenders to build major infrastructure projects in Israel, including power plants, while Tel Aviv is among the most popular destination cities for daily fights on Turkish Airlines from Istanbul. “However, it is unlikely that military cooperation and Israeli arms sales to Turkey – the bedrock of ties between the two countries in their honeymoon periods – would resume in the near future, unless circumstances change fundamentally and trust is restored at the highest levels,” Efron says.

While Turkey and Israel have in the past succeeded in decoupling economics and politics, that relationship is especially sensitive to Israeli-Palestinian tensions.Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has long supported the Islamist Hamas group, which has over the last decade run operations from the Turkish capital – much to Israel’s chagrin. “We have always said we will continue to defend the rights of Palestine, Jerusalem and Gaza,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara after announcing the normalization agreement last month. “It’s important that our messages are conveyed at the ambassadorial level in Tel Aviv.”

Lowering tensions

While unwavering support for the Palestinians precludes countries like Turkey from openly cooperating with Israel, experts argue that the Palestinian issue is changing significantly in Arab and Muslim discourse, as more and more countries trend toward normalization with Israel. “The Palestinian question has always factored heavily into the relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem, and we can expect Turkey to remain a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause,” says Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. “But Turkey is now less likely than in the past to exploit it as a wedge issue with Israel, especially as other regional states head in the other direction.”

Karel Valansi, a Turkish journalist and author of “The Crescent Moon and the Magen David,” is optimistic about what she sees as the mature approach being taken by Israeli and Turkish leaders, even when they disagree on contentious topics. “As President [Isaac] Herzog said during his meeting with Erdogan in March, they have agreed to disagree,” Valansi says. “They discussed establishing a mechanism to help lower tensions if diplomatic spats arise in the future.”

Some experts are less optimistic about the new opportunities coming out of the normalization agreement, though. According to Blaise Misztal, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America, Turkey’s decision to normalize ties with Israel is largely a reaction to the larger trend of normalization that began with the Abraham Accords in 2020. “It is Erdogan’s attempt to play catch up as he sees the dynamics in the region rendering Turkey irrelevant – an outcome he can’t stand,” Misztal says. “In this respect, it is unlikely that his decision will lead to any signi cant new changes in the region so much as it acknowledges changes that have already been underway. It is, however, part of a broader attempt by Turkey to x its relations with the Sunni [Muslim] states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

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