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Situation Assessment 28 May, 2018

Turkish-Israeli Relations: the Implications of the Latest Crisis

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Ankara has recently escalated its criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with President Erdogan joining a chorus of other high-ranking Turkish officials in condemning the attacks on unarmed Palestinian protestors in the Gaza Strip during the “Great Return March”. By 13 May, Turkey had recalled its ambassadors to both Tel Aviv and Washington, a reaction to the US decision to move its embassy to Israel to the occupied city of Jerusalem. Equally, Israeli consular and diplomatic staff were dismissed from posts in both Ankara and Istanbul. In response, Tel Aviv worked to dismiss the Turkish Consul in East Jerusalem, who is responsible for Ankara’s relations with the Palestinian Authority. Media in both countries echoed these political recriminations. Turkish authorities then subjected the departing Israeli Ambassador to a thorough and public security screening as he departed Istanbul Airport; the Israelis were particularly offended by the fact that the ordeal was recorded on camera[1].

Ankara further called for an emergency summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; held on 18 May in Istanbul. It was the second such meeting of the OIC to address the same issue within the last six months. This cycle of measures and retaliations has brought Israel-Turkish relations to their worst position since a reconciliation which took place in 2016.

Background to the Crisis in Israeli-Turkish Relations

Israeli-Turkish relations have gradually strained since the electoral rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November, 2002. The Israeli assault on Gaza in late 2008 ushered in further, sharp deterioration. An Israeli raid on a Turkish aid vessel headed for Gaza in May of 2010, and the subsequent killing of 10 Turkish aid workers aboard the Mavi Marmara drove tensions higher still. When the Israelis refused to comply with a Turkish request both to pay reparations to the families of the slain activists and to end the siege on the Gaza Strip, Turkey responded with an earlier dismissal of the Israeli Embassy to Ankara, this time in September of 2011, as well as by cancelling military agreements between the two sides. Bilateral trade and economic ties were left untouched however.

Further Israeli assaults on the isolated Gaza Strip, in 2012 and 2014, served only to drive the two sides further apart[2]. The United States led a group of countries in mediating an end to the crisis between Ankara and Tel Aviv which was cemented in June, 2016. As part of the deal, the Israelis agreed to pay US$ 20 million in compensation for the Turkish lives lost on the Mavi Marmara and to offer an official apology. Additionally, the Israelis agreed to loosen the restrictions of the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip.

Despite Israeli desires to the contrary, relations between the two sides remained lukewarm even after the 2016 reconciliation. Ultimately, this was due to Israeli intransigence on a number of key points important to the Turkish side: the continued repression of the Palestinians, the continued siege of the Gaza Strip and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation there, and continued Israeli settlement activity, particularly in occupied East Jerusalem, as well as attacks on the Aqsa Mosque compound.

An Unequal Relationship

There are a number of distinctive features of Tel Aviv-Ankara relations. Most Israeli observers agree that the relationship of their country with Turkey is imbalanced, with the Israelis being more in need of good relations with Turkey than the other way around. The roots of this presently fraught relationship date back to the ascendancy of a new political elite in Turkey. This new elite, which rose to power with the AKP, brought with it a new and distinct vision of Turkey’s place in the region and the wider world, particularly in relation to Muslim countries. Additionally, traditionally pro-Israel elements within the Turkish establishment—the military and the Kemalist bureaucracy—were severely weakened following the failed coup attempt which sought to unseat a democratically elected government in Turkey in July 2016. An additional change has been the increased prominence of the Palestinian cause within the Turkish public sphere: overwhelming public support for Palestinian rights and freedom has been reflected in the platforms of Turkey’s major political parties.

Tensions in Israeli-Turkish relations can further be attributed to a series of other intractable issues, including:

  • Wide-ranging Israeli support for the self-ruling Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq which undermines Turkish policy. Specifically, Israeli military support for the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq has allowed for a flourishing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Ankara’s nemesis. This has gone hand-in-hand with Israeli support for Kurdish separatist aspirations in both Syria and Iraq, a direct threat to Turkey’s national security.
  • Increasing support from the pro-Israel lobby in the United States for recognition of the Armenian Holocaust as a genocide. With increasing numbers of Knesset members seeking to enshrine a similar recognition for the Armenian Holocaust as a World War I-era genocide, there are increasing Turkish suspicions that the Israeli leadership is wielding this “Armenian Holocaust” card to blackmail Ankara. Notably, this is a dramatic change in the attitude of the American pro-Israel lobby, which had long opposed such acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide.
  • Israeli support for Cypriot claims on natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, again bringing it into direct conflict with Ankara’s support for the (unrecognized) Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Ultimately, Israel will always stand in opposition to any regional power which threatens Tel Aviv’s own preeminence across the region.

Economic Ties

Although trade and economic ties between Turkey and Israel have remained robust throughout the deterioration in their political relations, there are indications that these two may be impacted in this latest episode, indeed that frayed Turkish-Israeli relations could soon endanger the economic and commercial ties between the two countries.

Notably, the trade balance between the two sides has tipped in Turkey’s favour over the past three years. In 2014, a trade volume of US$5.5 billion was accounted for by $2.7 billion of Turkish exports to the Israeli market and $2.8 billion the other way. The following year, a ban on Israeli companies taking part in Turkish government tenders led to the volume of trade dropping to $4.1 billion, $2.4 billion of which was Turkish goods and services in the Israeli market[3]. By 2016, Israeli-Turkish trade volume stood at $3.9 billion, $2.6 billion of which was made up of Turkish exports to Israel. In 2017, $2.9 billion of Turkish exports accounted for most of a $4.3 billion trade volume between the two sides.

Despite worsening political ties, and the fact that Turkey ended the import of Israeli military hardware in 2010, a number of other factors have served to ensure that their economic ties remain robust. For example, increasing liberalization of the Israeli aviation industry has driven up the numbers of Israeli flights to Turkey. In 2012, there were a total of 4,700 Israeli civilian flights to Turkish airports, carrying a total of 686,000 passengers to Turkey. By 2017, there were 12,400 flights between the two countries, carrying 2 million customers.

Similarly, Israel continues to provide a much needed artery for Turkish goods entering the Arab region. With the war in Syria cutting off the regular land route for Turkish goods to enter the Arab Middle East, Turkish trucks carrying agricultural and other goods often disembark at Haifa Port before driving into Jordan form whence they enter other Arab countries. Approximately 40 large-scale Turkish freight trucks make this journey every week. The Israelis have attempted to facilitate this transit movement by investing in road and rail infrastructure tying Haifa Port to Jordan. The investments, which target traffic not only from Turkey but also other countries seeking to export to Jordan and the wider Arab Middle East, would very likely have an adverse impact on shipping traffic going through the Suez Canal and Lebanese and Syrian ports.

Alluding to Sanctions

The leaders of both sides have hinted at the possibility of taking steps that reduce the level of bilateral economic and trade relations between them. Erdogan has already promised to assess the status of Turkish-Israeli economic and trade ties following the next parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey, due for 24 June. Speaking in the Israeli legislature, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel stated to his fellow members of the Knesset that he had instructed his ministry not to import any more goods from Turkey until the situation settled, and invited other government ministers to do the same[4].

This was the context in which a Knesset session held on 23 May discussed the possibility of an official recognition of the Armenian Genocide during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire and in the midst of the First World War. Although the assembled legislators agreed to withhold voting on official recognition at an undisclosed time in the future, this did mark a shift in a long-standing Israeli policy. Erstwhile, the Israeli government was actively engaged in preventing the recognition of the Armenian Genocide worldwide. Earlier Israeli reticence about recognition of the Armenian Holocaust was not driven exclusively by a desire to preserve its relations with Turkey, but also to help maintain the “uniqueness” of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe as an unparalleled event in human history. Pointedly, the Israeli ruling coalition allowed its member legislators a free vote on the issue, while the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to intervene against possible recognition of the genocide of the Armenian people[5].

At the time of writing, no date has been set to discuss the motion to officially recognize the Armenian Holocaust by the Israeli Knesset. 


The Israeli-Turkish relationship is headed for greater tension and stress, and possibly direct confrontation. A number of contentious issues continue to plague Ankara-Tel Aviv relations, including Israel’s continued siege of the Gaza Strip and its transgressions against the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem. Exacerbating these is Israeli backing for Kurdish separatists in Iraq, Syria and perhaps even within Turkish territory. Within the wider region, differences in opinion over the conflict in Syria, the Iranian nuclear program and the question of Cypriot underwater gas reserves in the Mediterranean are further flashpoints for the two sides.

Today, it appears that the Israelis are increasingly willing to abandon their previously lopsided relationship with Turkey. Since 2017, Tel Aviv has shown a greater willingness to defy Turkey directly and openly than at other times in the past, as well as to recruit the United States into applying similar effort. One factor which has made this possible is Israel’s new-found ability to build alliances with other states in the region: Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Saudi Arabia. These new alliances have freed Israel of reliance on its one-time ally Turkey, but also brought it into a partnership with countries which have their own, separate disputes with Ankara. For its part, there are numerous potential punitive measures available to Turkey. These include the prevention of Israeli settlers living in the occupied Palestinian Territories from entering Turkish territory; closing its airspace to Israeli flights; and blocking the transit of oil and natural gas from Azerbaijan to Israel. The difficult but not impossible adoption of any such measures could be a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations, restoring bilateral ties to the previous order of affairs following the adoption by Turkey of any such moves could be difficult if not impossible.

[1] See Noa Landau, “Diplomatic Row Escalates: Turkey Invites Press to Film Ousted Israeli Envoy Frisked at Airport,” Haaretz, 16 May, 2018, available online (paywall, English version): https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-summons-turkish-rep-to-protest-harsh-treatment-of-ambassador-1.6094163

[2] For background, see “Operation Protective Edge: Israel’s July 2014 Assault on Gaza,” Assessment Report (Situation Assessment) series published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 13 July, 2014, available online: https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/Operation_Protective_Edge_Israels_July_2014_Assault_on_Gaza.aspx;

and “The Assault on Gaza Leaves Israeli Objectives Unachieved,” Assessment Report (Situation Assessment) series published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 25 November, 2012, available online: https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/The_Assault_on_Gaza_Leaves_Israeli_Objectives_Unachieved.aspx

[3] Gallia Lindenstrauss, “Old and New Dynamics: What has Changed in the Turkey-Israel Relations,” Institute of National Security Studies, 24 May, 2018, available online: http://www.inss.org.il/publication/old-new-dynamics-changed-turkey-israel-relations/?offset=0&posts=85&outher=Gallia%20Lindenstrauss

[4] “Turkish minister condemns Israel over agro-trade freeze,” Andalou Agency, 16 May, 2018, available online: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/turkish-minister-condemns-israel-over-agro-trade-freeze/1147794

[5] See, Lahav Hakrov, “Knesset Approves Motion Recognizing Armenian Genocide,” The Jerusalem Post, 23 May, 2018, available online: https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Knesset-approves-motion-on-recognizing-Armenian-Genocide-558191