Israel President Isaac Herzog and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a press conference in Ankara on Mar. 9, 2022 in Ankara, Turkey. Credit - Yavuz Ozden—dia images via Getty Images
Israel and Turkey announced Wednesday that they would restore full diplomatic ties with each other and re-appoint their ambassadors in Ankara and Tel Aviv. Although the two countries have spent years at odds over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and other contentious issues, Turkey is grappling with an inflation rate above 70% and is seeking foreign investment. For its part, Israel views Turkey as a strong player that can counterbalance Iran’s influence in the region.
“A dialogue process began with Israel after the new government took office,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in an apparent reference to Israel’s longest-serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who left office in June 2021. “The appointment of ambassadors was among the steps we said we would take to normalize relations.”
In 2018, Israel and Turkey expelled their respective ambassadors from each other’s countries after the U.S. under former President Donald Trump moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a part of which Palestinians want as their future capital—kicking off deadly confrontations along the Israel-Gaza border. At least 100 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in protests in the aftermath of the embassy announcement.
But that wasn’t the first time tensions flared between Turkey and Israel. In 2010, the two countries withdrew their ambassadors from Ankara and Tel Aviv after Israeli commandos attacked a Turkish aid flotilla, killing at least 10 pro-Palestinian activists. The protestors had intended to break Israel’s now 15-year blockade of Gaza and deliver supplies. Israel has since paid $20 million in compensation to the families of the victims of the raid; Turkey dropped its criminal charges against Israeli officers. The two countries had restored full diplomatic relations after the payment, until the 2018 developments.
“Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated periodically over the last 15 years in particular—partially due to Israeli occupation violence against the Palestinians,” says H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Turkey stressed that the current normalization deal would not affect their support for Palestinians. “As we have always said, we will continue to defend the rights of Palestinians,” Çavuşoğlu said.
Turkey holds a special significance as the first Muslim-majority country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 1949. Now, it becomes the latest such country to work towards normalizing ties with Israel following similar steps taken by the Arab states of Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative established consensus among Arab governments that they would only normalize relations with Israel after it withdrew from the occupied territories, a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital was established, and a just resolution for Palestinian refugees was reached. “The U.A.E and Bahrain’s normalization agreement [without those conditions being met] shattered that consensus,” says Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Turkey has been more critical of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians compared to other countries that recently normalized relations with Israel. Over the last decade or two, Turkey has emerged as a “champion of the Palestinian cause at a moment when the Arab voice on the Palestinian issue has been in decline,” Elgindy says. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gone as far as referring to Israel as an “apartheid” and “terrorist” state.
Despite Erdogan’s fiery criticism of Israel, he made an official visit to the country early in his tenure in 2005. Since Netanyahu’s departure, Erdoğan has also expressed a desire to ship Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey. And in recent months, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey in March and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu visited Israel in May. Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid also visited Ankara in June.
“Regardless of the anti-Israel rhetoric, Ankara clearly identifies a deep strategic interest in maintaining ties with Israel, and the restoration of diplomatic ties on the level of ambassadors is hardly surprising in that regard,” Hellyer says. “It won’t mean that Ankara will diminish its policies in support of the Palestinians, but Israeli-Turkish relations have a life of their own separate from that.”
Given the two countries’ rocky history in recent years, it’s hardly impossible that future tensions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could hinder normalization. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that this is going to be smooth sailing, and they’re all going to hug and make up and everything’s gonna be hunky dory. There’s always the potential in the Palestinian arena that something will happen that will strain relations again—that wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Elgindy says.