On Wednesday Israeli President Isaac Herzog will visit Turkey for two days, meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara before visiting the Jewish community in Istanbul. It will be the highest level visit to the country since Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Ankara in 2007. Turkey has been making efforts to normalize its relations with Israel as part of a wider attempt to recalibrate its Middle Eastern policies. The visit is, therefore, expected to be significant for bilateral and regional diplomatic, economic/energy, and security ties.
Turkey and Israel have had tumultuous relations since 2010, and since 2018 they have had no significant diplomatic relations. Around this time Turkey and Israel expelled each other’s ambassadors following the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. During this same year the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Still, recent developments point to a thawing of relations. For instance, in December 2021, Erdogan said that Turkey was ready to improve relations and that it was still interested in transporting Israeli gas to Europe. He also met with Jewish rabbis, signaling his eagerness to normalize relations despite the anti-Semitic discourse of domestic politics. Recently, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke on the phone with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the first such call between Turkish and Israeli foreign ministers since 2008.
Answering a few questions will help us to understand the fundamental dynamics behind these developments as well as the potential of Herzog’s visit:
Turkey’s current diplomatic isolation can be seen as the main reason for recent developments. First of all, Turkey’s deteriorating relations with the US are an influential factor in its desire to repair its relations with Israel. Because Ankara has traditionally considered Israel as a way of getting its voice heard in Washington DC, the Turkish government may have calculated that those warming relations with Israel could also help to improve relations with the US. Nevertheless, experts are dubious as to the efficacy of this strategy.
Turkey has also been ostracized by other countries in its region particularly when it comes to energy cooperation. It was left out both the natural gas agreements between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus and the East Mediterranean Gas Forum established in 2020 by Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Jordan.
Additionally, the Abraham Accords and associated normalization of relations between Israel on the one hand and the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia on the other further isolated Turkey.
While shifts in regional diplomatic realities have pushed Turkey to this point, the role that Turkey’s deteriorating economy has played in catalyzing this normalization should not be understated. In other words, Turkey hopes that its economic woes can be assuaged by improving relations with its neighbors.
Who is Herzog?
It is undeniable that leaders exert profound impacts on the diplomatic relations of their countries. Herzog, who won a seven-year term in office in June 2021, is a left-wing politician. He entered politics in 1999 in Ehud Barak’s cabinet after which time he held several ministerial positions in many governments and led the Labor Party and the opposition. In this sense, he is expected to have better relations with Turkey.
Additionally, unlike former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who enforced one-man policies, current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett fully supports Herzog’s diplomatic initiatives. Thanks to his approach, Herzog enjoys a degree of diplomatic power despite the traditionally symbolic role of the Israeli presidency.
How will Herzog’s Visit to Turkey affect Bilateral Relations and Regional Dynamics?
Considering current regional dynamics and the high-level nature of the interaction, Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Turkey has greater potential to “normalize” Turkey-Israel relations than previous attempts, which ultimately ended in new crises.
The topics that will be discussed in the meeting on Wednesday will be in line with the main tensions and potentials that currently define relations between the two countries. First, economic cooperation is expected to be highlighted. Since Turkey and Israel have historically succeeded in “compartmentalizing” their economic and political relations, this could be the most constructive topic.
Another significant issue that is expected to be brought to the table is energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. In this context, it is expected that Ankara will try to take advantage of the US’s announcement that it no longer supports the EastMed natural gas pipeline. Nonetheless, Israel is still not willing to harm its close relations with Greece and Cyprus, and it has clearly stated that rapprochement with Turkey will not come at the expense of Israel-Greece-Cyprus relations. This is exemplified in Herzog’s visits to Athens and Nicosia prior to his visit to Turkey.
Even though Turkey-Israel energy cooperation holds significant potential, not only for these two countries but also for Europe, trust will need to be rebuilt between the two before discernable progress is made in this area.
Last but not least, Israel is expected to underline its demands regarding Hamas while Turkey is expected to reiterate its concerns regarding Palestine. Although no immediate solution will be presented on these issues, any improvement in Turkey-Israel relations would positively affect the Palestinian cause as warming relations would make it more difficult for Israel to wage war against the Palestinians without considering Turkish condemnation.
At the regional level, improved Turkish-Israeli relations would undoubtably exert influence over the security and stability of the Middle East. More specifically, cooperation between Turkey and Israel is essential in impeding Iranian and Russian influence in the region, especially in Syria.
For the continuation of normalization, political will is needed in both countries. If this is present, the appointment of ambassadors would be a concrete next step. At that point, Turkey should act wisely by appointing an experienced diplomat who can address the concerns of Israel. Additionally, different areas of cooperation, including in the realms of technology, agriculture, and climate change, should be carefully considered and developed.