Set for Reset: Are Israel-Turkey Relations Back on Track?
© AP Photo / Burhan OzbiliciTurkish honour guard soldiers hold an Israeli, right, and Turkish flag, left, after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his Turkish counterpart Vecdi Gonul reviewed the military guard of honour before their talks in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010
© AP Photo / Burhan Ozbilici
Ties between the two nations soured in the past decade following the Mavi Marmara incident and the several escalation rounds between Israel and the Gaza militants, allegedly supported by Turkey. Now, however, under the leadership of PM Naftali Bennett the situation might soon be changing.
Last Tuesday, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), backed by Turkey, announced that a small part of Varosha, an abandoned coastal town on the divided island, would come under its civilian control and be open for potential resettlement.
Greece that backs the government in Nicosia immediately rejected the move, saying it was a violation of UN Security Council Resolutions.
And so did Israel. Immediately following the TRNC announcement, Yair Lapid, who heads the country's Foreign Ministry, expressed his "deep concerns" over the situation in Varosha. He also reiterated his commitment to deepening and broadening ties with Greece, one of Turkey's regional rivals.
— יאיר לפיד - Yair Lapid🟠 (@yairlapid) July 21, 2021
In Turkey, those comments of Israel's Foreign Minister didn't surprise many, especially given the sour taste that characterized the relations in recent years.
First they were marred by the 2010 Mavi Marmara "freedom flotilla" that aimed at lifting Israel's blockade of Gaza and that resulted in the death of ten Turkish nationals.
Then it was Israel's several military campaigns in Gaza that devastated the enclave and left thousands dead or injured.
And, finally, it was the lack of personal chemistry between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdman and Israel's then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been running the country for 12 consecutive years.
Now, Yusuf Erim, a political analyst for TRT World, a news channel known for its ties with the Turkish government, says the relations with Israel might soon be back on track.
"Turkey views the new Israeli government as a clean slate that is free of the baggage that burdened the Netanyahu administration. The presence of Israeli Arab officials and a president that is more pragmatic regarding the Palestinian issue is [also] an optimistic development for Turkey".
On 13 June, Yair Lapid and his partner Naftali Bennett forged a coalition that ended the rule of Netanyahu, who has been known for his hawkish policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers' activity in the West Bank.
That coalition that comprises of eight parties representing the right, centre and left circles, is also reliant on Raam, an Islamic faction believed to have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movement that enjoys from the support of Erdogan. And Erim believes that such a diverse alliance might end up succeeding in "softening" Israel's stance on the Palestinians, thus "lifting a major obstacle" that's currently hovering above the two nations.
Over the years, Turkey has repeatedly reiterated its support for the Palestinians and their strife to obtain an independent state.
Apart from backing the Palestinians on various international platforms, Ankara has also poured in millions of dollars into the various West Bank and Gaza Strip projects.
In 2017, for example, it built 320 houses in southern Gaza in an attempt to help those, who lost their homes during Israel's operation Protective Edge of 2014. And more recently, it was reported that Ankara planned to invest $10 million into the construction of an industrial zone near the West Bank's city of Jenin, creating jobs for thousands of Palestinians.
That Turkish assistance and its constant involvement in the region has never been viewed positively by Netanyahu and his hawkish government. Ankara has often been accused of trying to weaken Israel's positions and of supporting Hamas, an Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip and that's deemed terrorist by the Jewish state.
Optimism on the Rise
Under the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, known for his conservative views, that policy is unlikely to change but Erim says he is optimistic about the future.
"While Bennett is very hawkish and similar to Netanyahu is many aspects, his coalition is diverse and he will need to take a step to the centre to appease his centrist, left wing and Israeli Arab partners. All actors in that coalition will have to refrain from acting on the edges of the political spectrum," he asserted.
If Bennett succeeds, relations with Turkey will continue to warm, especially since the two states have a number of common interests and challenges that can unite their ranks.
"The growing presence of Shiite militia [Hezbollah that's linked to Iran - ed.] is a national security threat for both countries. Instability in Syria and Iraq is a concern that both countries share as well".
Yet, common interests do not boil down to security threats only, they involve cash too. Despite their differences and rather poor diplomatic relations, trade between the nations has been flourishing, and Erim says it still has room to grow.
"It's been a decade since Israel discovered gas in the east Mediterranean. However, they have not been able to sell it to the European markets. [If relations warm], a pipeline route via Turkey would be quicker, more cost effective and could tap into an existing network".
Yet, for that to happen, Israel will need to make sure that Palestinian rights are not violated and that the country's politicians refrain from making explosive comments that could potentially crack ties that are currently being mended.