A constant dripping wears away the stone – the saying, as plain and simple as it might sound, seems to be especially true for describing the current state of Turkish-Israeli relations. After years of mutual alienation and mistrust, Ankara recently decided to expel Israel’s ambassador to the Turkish Republic. What happened? In May 2010 Israeli Special Forces conducted a raid against the so called Gaza Flotilla, a maritime convoy shipping under Turkish flag, which intentionally tried to break the Israeli sea blockade of the Gaza-Strip. The mission escalated and caused the death of nine Turkish activists, who were shot by Israeli soldiers. Subsequently, Ankara called Israel to officially apologize for the incident and to pay financial compensation for the dependants, a move which was decisively rejected by the government in Tel Aviv. On September 1, 2011 the New York Times leaked the final conclusions of a UN investigation that found Israel’s blockade of the Gaza-Strip to be legal. It also says “Israel’s decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable (…).” However, “Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara requiring them to use force for their own protection.” In response to the publication of this report, the Turkish government reacted with anger and disappointment. President Gül publicly declared that Turkey considers the report to be irrelevant. Consequently, Ankara not only downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel on the level of second secretary, it furthermore terminated the bilateral military cooperation that had been in place since 1996 – the latter part representing a substantial deterioration of the bilateral relationship. When both countries clashed with one another in past years, be it the Davos incident or Turkey’s furious denunciation of Israel’s war on Gaza in 2008/2009, disagreement remained on a rhetoric level only. This time Turkey seems to be committed to taking vigorous action, including sanctioning Israeli behavior materially. From a financial point of view, Turkey can afford to do so. On the basis of the military agreement, Tel Aviv granted Ankara preferential trade conditions for weapons technology and equipment. Seeing Turkey’s economic growth of ten percent or more, the country will have the budgetary resources to get its military procurement from other average market-price sources.

The Arab Spring and the personal involvement of Erdoğan

The aggravation of Turkish-Israeli relations comes at a time when both countries would be better off putting their efforts together in managing the challenges of the Arab Spring. The two states are the only spots of democracy and stability in a region that is currently in turmoil. The Israeli and Turkish governments should, therefore, have a genuine interest in shaping the events in their neighborhood for the better, which is only feasible by cooperation. In this regard, it seems to be a distortion of facts by Turkish officials in claiming the above mentioned UN investigation looks to cause insecurity in the Middle East when the opposite is the case. In fact, the cutting off of diplomatic ties, as announced by the Turkish government, is another mosaic contributing to the complexity, and potentially increased instability, of the region as a whole.

To better understand the situation it is imminent to also differentiate along personal dividing lines. Though it was the Turkish government as a whole that agreed to downgrade ties with Israel, it is legitimate to ask what the driving force behind this decision was. In the past, it became clear that it was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who was especially responsible for maverick politics − he increasingly shows signs of an autocratic leader. Indeed, it was he who promoted democratic reforms and constitutional amendments in the first years of his government. Nowadays, his commitment to pushing back representatives of civil society and opposition forces under the cloak of the Ergenekon process, an investigation against high ranking members of the military who are accused of subversive and anti-government actions, appears dubious. Adding up his rhetoric in calling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a friend or defending Sudanese head of state Omar Al-Bashir with the words that no Muslim is able to perpetrate genocide, Erdoğan leaves the impression of increasingly disbanding himself from a Western political consensus. In this sense, it is difficult to come to a conclusion regarding the dynamics within the Turkish government. However, the triumvirate consisting of Prime Minister Erdoğan, foreign minister Davutoğlu and President Gül does not always act in accordance. Leads are accumulating, alluding to disagreement among the three politicians. In the words of the British Magazine, The Economist: “Davutoglu makes, Erdogan breaks and Gul picks up the pieces.” Accordingly, it can be assumed that, once again, it was Erdoğan who turned out to be a main factor behind the recent move to cut down relations with Israel.

Turkey as part of the problem and not the solution

Be that as it may, the most crucial part of the recent dead end between Ankara and Tel Aviv is the fact that it seems to contradict what Turkish foreign policy stood for in the recent past. Davutoğlu, who can be considered the master mind behind Turkey’s role in international politics, puts a main focus of his work on three principles: “zero problems with neighbors”, dialogue, and diplomacy. Following those guidelines, the Turkish Republic was able to ease relations with many countries in its neighborhood that were conflict-ridden in the past, especially toward Iran, Syria and Iraq. As part of this process, Ankara set up channels of communication to various state and non-state actors in the region, among others Hamas and Hezbollah, two organizations which are frankly not well regarded in Western capitals. According to the Turkish government, it is imminent to seek dialogue in every direction in order to find viable and sustainable solutions for regional conflict. For some years, the country could distinguish itself as a generally respected mediator, e.g. leading to peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2008. Against the backdrop of current developments those times seem to be long ago. Today’s diplomatic clash between Israel and Turkey backfires in two regards. First, it does not fit with a policy which aims at “zero problems”. Quite the opposite; it creates new ones. Furthermore, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and diplomacy, while simultaneously terminating exactly those means with Israel, undermines Turkey’s credibility on the international stage. Secondly, the Turkish government is gambling away all the mediating credit it has developed over the past several years. Being an arbitrator necessarily implies being accepted by all conflict parties, to be not actively involved in conflict, and not to side unilaterally with one party. By deliberately escalating relations with Israel and suing Israel at the International Court of Justice over the legitimacy of the Gaza-Blockade, Ankara does not fulfill any of those three features. Of further significance, Turkey’s decision to expel the Israeli ambassador was applauded by Hamas.

It is difficult to forecast the outcome of this situation. Davutoğlu pointed out that relations can get back to normal if Tel Aviv finally delivers an apologetic statement of regret for the Gaza-Flotilla incident (including financial compensation). The United Nations and the US also urge Israel to do so. Furthermore, the Netanyahu government is under immense domestic pressure, including mass demonstrations within the country, calling for social justice. Jumping over its shadow and delivering a public apology could be a less costly alternative for Israel than to risk a further escalation with Turkey, which would add to the complex situation of Israel’s standing in international relations. However, even in such a case, it is unthinkable that Israeli-Turkish relations will reach the same intensity as in the 1990’s, when both states were not only connected by military contracts but also through ties of mutual friendship. It is, therefore, more likely that the smoldering crisis between the two will go on regardless of an Israeli apology. In addition, it needs to be asked whether the situation, and its broader context, also entail potential for positive implications. The Turkish government recently denounced its partnership with Syria due to the regime’s violent crackdown of the Syrian opposition movement. By this, Ankara lost all its regional leverage. The times of “Turkish-Syrian brotherhood” are gone, as well as the period of the Turkish-Israeli honeymoon. Turkey seems to be pretty much on its own, but that is not to say it faces isolation. The way is paved for reanimating Turkish-Western bonds, especially with regard to the United States and the EU. Seeing a huge overlap of strategic interests between Ankara, Washington and the EU, it is to be hoped that Turkey will realign with the West in order to balance its fading regional influence.


Rana Deep Islam is a former DAAD/AICGS Fellow. He is currently a Ph.D. student at Erlangen University in the Department of International Relations.

This essay appeared in the September 8, 2011, AICGS Advisor.