Once again, uncertainty has prevailed after optimism regarding reconciliation talks between Israel and Turkey, with İbrahim Kalın, the spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, saying on April 12 that the parties “are not yet at the stage of drafting and sealing an agreement.”
Before a meeting in London last week, the two sides were reportedly close to finalizing a deal, having agreed upon the amount of compensation to be paid by Israel for the victims of the Mavi Marmara – despite major hurdles such as Israel’s demand that Hamas’ headquarters in Turkey be shut down and the recent Turkish demand to send a power-generating ship to Gaza.
Though neither Turkey nor Israel have abandoned the negotiations, it may take longer than expected for them to reach an agreement (if indeed both are still willing to restore bilateral relations).
An announcement by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office on April 13 that said “Israel would gladly exchange ambassadors if Turkey was willing to take the first step,” reveals that a third option might also be on the table for the two neighbors to resume diplomatic ties without fully resolving their conflicts.
When making predictions about the Middle East, betting on a pessimist outcome always pays off. But those who prefer to remain on the safe side and comfortably envision no deal at all between Israel and Turkey ignore the fact that regional geopolitics have been pushing the two closer to each other for quite some time, meaning that normalization will take place sooner or later.
Turkey and Israel have shared geopolitical interests in the region, such as cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), balancing the rise of Iran, restoring stability in Syria and Iraq, and fostering energy security and cooperation in the Mediterranean. While regional developments are bringing Ankara and Tel Aviv closer, domestic factors such as the negative view of Israel in Turkish public opinion due to the Palestinian issue continue to drive a wedge between them. Anti-Israeli attitudes, which are often fused with anti-Semitism and manifest themselves as hate speech, are very widespread in the Turkish media.
From a broader perspective, however, normalization with Israel is in fact a part of a long-awaited reset in Turkish foreign policy in terms of repairing broken ties with neighbors, overcoming the country’s regional isolation, and realigning with the Western alliance in the post-Arab Spring context.
Aside from that, the souring of relations with Russia over the downing of the SU-24 Russian jet in November 2015 has made the diversification of energy resources a more pressing issue for Turkey, pushing it toward seeking reconciliation with Tel Aviv. For a middle-sized power like Turkey, building smart alliances is a sine qua non for maintaining security and increasing influence in international diplomacy.
Israel and Turkey, two non-Arab countries, are likely to benefit from enhancing dialogue and cooperation amid the chaos in the region.
However, Turkey’s embracing of the Palestinian conflict to the point where it is almost a domestic issue, and its promotion of Hamas more than any other Arab country in the region, hinders negotiations with Israel.
Besides, both countries are also seeking to “claim victory” in the talks, which obstructs tradeoffs and eliminates flexibility in the bargaining process.
Having faced several obstacles in the foreign policy realm for the last couple of years, the stakes are higher for Turkey to reach an agreement if Israel does not meet its demands, given that Ankara has a conservative domestic constituency that is highly sensitive about the suffering of Palestinians.
Although normalization with Israel does not provide a magical formula to soothe Turkey’s long-standing problems, it could be a constructive step in terms of providing mediation for resolving the Palestinian issue and fighting anti-Semitism in Turkish society.
The outcome of the negotiations in the upcoming weeks will indicate whether geopolitical interests or domestic politics prevail.