Turkish-Israeli relations heat up but not without problems
Turkish-Israeli relations today seem to be guided by the well-known Turkish proverb that says: “An old friend can never be an enemy”. Ankara and Tel Aviv have recently been trying to turn a new page after more than a decade of tension in their bilateral relations. The main drivers of this new era in relations seem to be economic and security interests. However, it’s no secret that Turkey’s relations with Israel are not entirely trouble-free. In particular, the relations of the two parties with other actors in the region could act as a limiting force in their detente.
On Tuesday, Israel announced that its economic office, located in Istanbul, would resume operations on August 1, three years after it was closed due to diplomatic fallout between the countries. Tel Aviv stressed that its reopening reflected the country’s commitment to deepening economic ties with Turkey. This development is expected to affect around 1,540 Israeli companies, helping to strengthen their business operations in the Turkish market.
It should be noted that, despite the years of hostility, Turkey and Israel have maintained their commercial ties and Turkey has remained one of Israel’s most important partners. Turkey was Israel’s fourth largest trading partner in 2021 and ranked fifth in exports. Mutual trade in goods and services between Israel and Turkey amounted to $7.7 billion last year, an increase of around 30% from 2020, according to the Israel Foreign Trade Administration. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two sides hoped the trade would reach $10 billion. This year.
A free trade agreement was signed between Israel and Turkey in 1996, the same year they also signed a military training and cooperation agreement. Following the free trade agreement, four joint economic forums between the two countries have already taken place, the last dating back to 2009. Given the recent climate of rapprochement, the fifth session should be held in the fall of 2022.
Another development this week was the announcement of a bilateral air traffic expansion plan under a new aviation agreement. “The agreement should lead to the resumption of flights by Israeli companies to various destinations in Turkey, alongside flights by Turkish companies to Israel,” according to a statement issued by the Israeli Ministry of Transport.
Challenges include any potential flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and rising tensions between Turkey and Greece.
Needless to say, tourism is at the heart of economic relations between the two countries. Turkey continues to be one of the most popular destinations for Israeli tourists despite security threats. Last month, Israel issued a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid traveling to Istanbul, following reports of an Iranian plot to carry out an attack on Israeli and Jewish targets. This warning was later downgraded following the arrest of several Iranian members by Turkish authorities. These arrests are the result of weeks of close cooperation between the security services of both sides.
Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, particularly Hezbollah, remain a critical concern for Israel. Turkey is well aware of this and sees Israel as an important partner in limiting Iranian influence in the Levant. Turkish and Israeli leaders like the idea of Syria being sandwiched between their two countries. Thus, Iranian unease over growing Turkish-Israeli cooperation can be seen clearly in Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s remarks at the start of his visit to Syria on Saturday. He condemned Israel’s latest airstrike on Syria and criticized Turkey’s recent threats to launch another operation in the north of the country.
Although recent reciprocal visits by the Turkish Foreign Minister and his Israeli counterpart have paved the way for improved diplomatic, security and economic relations, Ankara and Tel Aviv still face challenges in their relationship. These include any potential flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and rising tensions between Turkey and Greece. Athens has, in recent years, strengthened its relations with Israel.
According to a report published this week by the Kathimerini newspaper, Greek forces have begun installing Israeli-made military devices that could obscure the vision of Turkish drones. The report says Greece is “in the final stage” of forming a so-called umbrella against Turkish drones and that umbrella consists of the Israeli-made “Drone Dome” system. There were several previous articles in the Greek media that said Greece was in negotiations with the Israeli manufacturer Rafael for the purchase of such a system.
Tel Aviv values its relations with Greece because of its interest in fostering relations with NATO, as well as maintaining a balance in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, Turkey, which has the second-largest military in the Euro-Atlantic alliance and boasts advanced air defense technology, is a hard player to ignore here. Any developments in Israel-NATO relations are not only linked to major geopolitical developments and NATO reforms, but are also strongly affected by the warming of Israel’s relations with Turkey.
It should be noted that the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, in particular after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, was also reflected within NATO, with Ankara having vetoed the continued participation of Israel to its activities. Therefore, in this context, Israel must be careful not to walk a fine line in its relations with Turkey and Greece, especially in times of crisis between the two neighbors.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst specializing in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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