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Israel's New Government Offers Opportunity for Reset with Turkey as Obstacles Remain


FILE - Turkish police officers stand guard outside the residence of Israeli embassy in Ankara, Turkey, May 21, 2021.

Turkey sees Israel’s formation of a new government without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a chance for the two countries to reset relations that have long been strained. But recent fighting between Hamas and Israel threatens to complicate any effort to improve ties.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu routinely exchanged insults, with both leaders making little secret of their mutual dislike.

With Netanyahu gone, an opportunity now exists for improving ties, says Sinan Ulgen of Istanbul’s Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. But Ulgen warns Erdogan's fiery condemnation last month of Israel for its military confrontation with Hamas will complicate those efforts.

“There (was) now a lot of personal animosity between the Turkish leadership and Netanyahu, whereas now there is a new political leadership in Israel," Ulgen said. "But given Turkey's reaction to the Israel-Palestinian outburst, now it's too raw to restart on that path. But the fact Netanyahu is not anymore part of the government in Israel should certainly be viewed as a positive development.”

A child holds a Palestinian flag during a rally outside Fatih mosque in Istanbul, May 4, 2021, in support of Palestinians, killed in the recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
A child holds a Palestinian flag during a rally outside Fatih mosque in Istanbul, May 4, 2021, in support of Palestinians, killed in the recent escalation of violence in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Turkey is looking to repair relations with Israel as part of a broader strategy to end its regional isolation. The two countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2018 over Israel's crackdown on Palestinians.

Relations also soured in 2010 after Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-owned ship that was part of a flotilla trying to break an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine pro-Palestinian activists aboard were killed.

Demonstrators march with a giant Palestinian flag on May 31, 2018 at Istiklal avenue in Istanbul, to mark the 8th anniversary of a deadly Israeli raid on Turkish-registered Mavi Marmara.
Demonstrators march with a giant Palestinian flag on May 31, 2018 at Istiklal avenue in Istanbul, to mark the 8th anniversary of a deadly Israeli raid on Turkish-registered Mavi Marmara.

A Turkish presidential advisor earlier this year had said the two countries were close to returning their ambassadors to their respective posts; however, international relations professor Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University says the success of any rapprochement attempt will depend on whether further major military confrontations happen between Israel and Hamas.

“At the lower levels, negotiations will continue," Ozel said. "They will not just be made public. And the timing of the rapprochement will be determined by how long these events will continue.”

Even with Netanyahu no longer in power, Gallia Lindenstrauss of Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies says Erdogan still has several critics remaining in Israel’s new government. But Lindenstrauss says the inclusion of an Arab party within the new coalition could facilitate efforts to improve Turkish-Israeli ties.

“The anti-Erdogan feelings were not only among Netanyahu and his party but also among parties that are now in the government," Lindenstrauss said. "But this Islamist party now in the Israeli coalition we already know they have contact with Turkey. The mere fact they are in government is something positive in this respect, and they also might function as a bridge between Turkey and Israel.”

But Lindenstrauss says the price for any reset will be high, with Israel looking for transparency from Ankara in its support of Palestinians in east Jerusalem as well as a toning down of Erdogan's verbal attacks on Israel. Lindenstrauss says Turkey's support of Hamas is probably the most contentious issue.

“The issue of Hamas military operations that are being conducted from Turkey. We have Hamas military operatives that are active in Turkey," Lindenstrauss said. "We know of money laundering going through Turkey. We know cyber activities going through Turkey from Hamas. We know of terror attacks that have been planned from Turkey, so all this from an Israeli perspective has to stop.”

Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian man amid ongoing confrontations as Palestinian families face eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, May 4, 2021.
Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian man amid ongoing confrontations as Palestinian families face eviction in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, May 4, 2021.

East Jerusalem is the epicenter of Palestinian protests against the Israeli government. Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its unified capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state.

Ankara says it only provides political and diplomatic support to Hamas and refuge to some of its members.

Yet, despite the current tensions, Turkish Israeli trade has continued to grow - pragmatism that some analysts say could be essential to normalization efforts.

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