The recent phase in Turkish-Israeli bilateral relations, from the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2010 to last year’s rapprochement, has been described by many as a ‘cooling-off period.’ Despite the increase in trade volume between the two countries, the ongoing tourism and educational exchange programs, and official meetings between senior bureaucrats of Israel and Turkey, this period was marked by unusually tough rhetoric from Turkish and Israeli political elites. While the official diplomatic relations have been restored, domestic political structures and popular opinion in Turkey are still driving a chill toward Israel that will not be easily overcome, as seen just last week with controversial comments from both sides.
Turkey’s coldness toward Israel was not just a temporary matter related to the flotilla incident, but related to its internal political culture, structure, and dynamics. The State of Israel and its relations with its Arab citizens, as well as with the Palestinians, is a topic of interest, both for Turkey as a state and for many Turkish people regardless of their political position. Turkey’s public perception of the Palestinians is mainly that they are victimized by Israel, and Turks tend to put the full responsibility for this on the Israeli government.
Turkey’s foreign policy approach has psychological, geopolitical, and historical motivations. From an historical perspective, although Turkey is not an Arab country, it desires to be a critical agent about issues in the Middle East. In the post-imperial era, modern Turkey established a conventional foreign policy that endeavored to maintain a balance between global actors. Since the 1950s this policy has been based, in particular, on a Trans-Atlantic security concept. In the early 2000s, Turkey’s foreign policy dramatically shifted as a result of insistence from political elites, foreign policy bureaucrats, and military officials to focus on alternative geopolitical channels like Eurasia (Central Asia and Turkic States), the European Union, and the Middle East so as to not have its foreign policy position determined by geopolitical conflict between US and USSR. As the conservative-rightist party, the AKP, rose to power, it determined that Turkey now has a social, psychological, and partly institutional infrastructure that could gladly accommodate such a foreign policy concept change.
Before that moment, Turkish governments were unwilling to intervene in regional issues, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution and peace process. From the 2000s onwards, Turkish foreign policy actors viewed Israel as a partner to cooperate with in regional issues. Israel’s unique political (democracy), social (Non-Arab and Non-Persian) and economic (based on free-market) position eased Turkey’s cooperation with Israel as a predictable ally in the midst of Sunni and Shia sectarian violence in the region. Turkey’s relations with Israel were not solely focused on the state-state relationship but were also enmeshed in NATO, Turkey’s desire to benefit from Israel’s position in the U.S., and regional geopolitical balances.
On the geopolitical side, Turkey regards having an influence on Palestine as a move towards increasing its general geopolitical influence. There are many countries in the region that desire to have an impact on the fate of a future state of Palestine: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar are among the leading countries. Turkey, on the other hand, is seeking to improve its image among the Palestinian people while maintaining a pragmatic and interest-based relationship with Israel. Turkey is aware of Israeli sensitivities to its internal security, while also skeptical that Israel intends to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. This dual agenda differentiates Turkey from many other countries in the region. In addition, Turkey views Israel as a potentially important partner for cooperation on energy and on security issues in the Mediterranean, which helps the promotion of the relations between the two countries.
There is also a socio-psychological aspect to the relationship between Israel and the average Turk. Most Turks visiting Israel limit themselves to Jerusalem, chiefly the eastern part of the city. This leads to a certain geographical narrowing and unilateral perspective toward the Israeli people and to Israel as a political unit. When Turks visit the al-Aqsa mosque and other religious locations, they are likely to encounter only the sentiments of the local Arabs who have a stereotypical view of all Israelis. As a result, the Turkish view on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rarely informed by the Israeli Jewish perspective. In contrast, the view of the average Israeli on Turkey is formed mainly while they are on holiday vacations. The general image of Turkey is positive because of the common politeness of the Turkish people; Israelis enjoy describing their holiday when you ask them about their experiences in Turkey and their views tend to be less shaped by political considerations.
When all of these dynamics are considered, it is possible to see some of the implications of the relationship between the two countries. Firstly, geopolitical factors have the potential to push Turkey-Israel relations beyond a routine diplomatic relationship. Secondly, at the social level there is a noticeable asymmetry that hinders the full-scale normalization of relations. To sum up, the course of relations between Turkey and Israel will be determined jointly by the harsh rhetoric that has been characteristic of Turkish domestic politics and the widespread societal resistance toward a deeper relationship with Israel while being balanced against Turkey’s wider geopolitical interests that dictate cooperation with Israel.