ISTANBUL - With Turkey facing strained relations with most of its neighbors and allies, Ankara is deepening ties with Israel in a rare bright spot. Diplomatic relations collapsed in 2010 after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens on a boat seeking to break Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. A reconciliation deal reached last year has opened the door to a resumption in relations that could pose a threat to Iran's regional aspirations.
“Almost every day there is a certain bilateral activity, either here or in Israel that has to do with the fruits of the reconciliation,” said Shai Cohen, the Israeli consul-general, speaking in Istanbul last week at a gathering aimed at enhancing ties. Cohen went further, eyeing regional turmoil as an impetus for further cooperation. “We share almost the same interests along our borders with Syria, Israel on one side and Turkey on the other. The main one is defeating jihadi terrorism Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic term for Islamic State. “But there is another one, with the expanding presence of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in that region.”
Israeli hopes of fostering a powerful alliance against Tehran have been boosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly fiery rhetoric against Iran. Last month, Erdogan labeled Shia paramilitary forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq “terrorists,” calling them part of Iran's “Persian expansionism policy.” Erdogan has increasingly positioned himself as protector of Sunni Muslim interests in the region, accusing Tehran of pursuing sectarian policies.
Turkey-Israel cooperation on Iran, would, analysts suggest, mark a major step in enhancing relations, especially addressing the “trust deficit.”
“Trust has to be rebuilt. Security is a crucial issue for both governments,” Cohen said. “We are working on that and maybe it's a little bit too early to elaborate on that but I think in the near future we will know more.”
The warming in Israeli-Turkish relations has brought improvements in trade along with talks on energy cooperation and promising signs of a return to Turkey of lucrative Israeli tourism; but, relations are still far from their heyday of the late 1990's, epitomized by close military cooperation that culminated in a deal that allowed Israeli jets to practice in Turkish airspace.
Bilateral cooperation against Iran could offer an opportunity in bridging the trust deficit.
“I think the current political setting in the Middle East provides a fertile ground for Turkey and Israel to restore their partnership. They have shared interests in terms of balancing Iran and combating terrorism in the region,” said Selin Nasi, journalist for Turkey's Salom newspaper and a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News. Nasi, however, also voices caution. “On the other hand, they (Turkey and Israel) do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. For instance, Iran is a rival but not an enemy for Turkey. Turkey has to take into account the fact that she shares a border with Iran.”
Former Turkish ambassador Unal Cevikoz, now head of the Ankara Policy Center research organization, warns of risks of joining any anti-Iranian alliance. “If Turkey chooses to do that, then Turkey will be perceived if it's pursuing some kind of sectarian policy just because of the emerging Sunni-Shia divide in the region.”
There are also domestic political risks for Erdogan, whose priority is his 2019 re-election bid. Much of the president's electoral base is drawn from conservative Muslims, to whom anti-Israeli rhetoric often plays well. Some of the pro-government Turkish media are rampantly anti-Semitic, rarely missing an opportunity to fan anger over Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
“It is always better to maintain a cautious optimism when making an assessment on Turkish-Israeli relations, given the place of the Palestinian issue in bilateral ties as a derailing factor,” warns journalist Nasi; but, a Turkish presidential source maintains the Palestinian issue remains “compartmentalized” in relations with Israel.
“Cooperation and rivalry” is the traditional maxim in Turkish diplomacy in defining Iranian relations. Even in the current tensions, cooperation remains an important aspect of relations. “In the Astana Process, Russia, Iran and Turkey are at least trying to find a common understanding to guarantee the cease-fire and also deconfliction zones in Syria,” points out retired Turkish ambassador Cevikoz, citing peace talks in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.
The complexity and sensitivity of attempting to lure Turkey into Israel's fold in its struggle against Iran is acknowledged by Consul-General Cohen. For now it appears Israel is ready to play the long game. "Iran is a common denominator for Israel and Turkey because of its aspirations for regional hegemony; but, the Iranian issue is not right now, something we are putting up at the top of the priority list. It's a common interest; we talk about it," he said.