Turkish-Israeli relations sometimes look like the myth of Sisyphus. According to the Greek mythology, Zeus condemned Ephyra’s king Sisyphus, in the afterlife, to rolling a big rock to the top of a mountain. Whenever he neared the top the rock rolled down and he had to roll it back up again in a never-ending labor.
Turkish-Israeli relations face a similar fate. Whenever these two countries managed to settle their disputes, a new reason popped up: Sisyphus’ rock rolled back down the hill and Ankara and Tel Aviv had to restart mending their relations again.
These relations reached one of their peaks in the 1990s, paradoxically when Necmettin Erbakan was Turkey’s prime minister. The military establishment chose his term of office to push through several military cooperation agreements with a view to forcing Erbakan to do the opposite of the anti-Israel rhetoric he used before he came to power.
The high mood in Turkish-Israeli relations continued — and even improved — during the early years of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). When, as a newly established political party, we paid our first unofficial visit to the US in 2002, the American Jewish organizations were queuing up to host Erdogan in their respective think tanks. Two years later the American Jewish Congress (AJC) bestowed the Profile of Courage award on Erdogan. He was the first non-Jewish (and Muslim) leader to receive this award. However, ten years later AJC President Jack Rosen sent a letter to Erdogan saying: “A decade after we gave you our award, you have become arguably the most virulent anti-Israel leader in the world, spewing dangerous rhetoric for political gain and inciting the Turkish population to violence against the Jewish people.”
“And now, we want it back,” he concluded.
During this ten-year period relations had gradually deteriorated. Turkey energetically protested in 2008 against Israel’s attack on Gaza where hundreds of Palestinians were killed. In 2009, Erdogan angrily reacted to the intervention of journalist David Ignatius in a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and, turning to the Israeli president Shimon Peres, said: “You know very well how to kill.”
Paradoxically, the biggest increase in trade relations took place in 2010 and 2011 when the political relations were at their lowest level. During the 16 years of AKP rule, foreign trade increased 4.5 fold.
The relations reached its lowest level when, in May 2010, the Israeli Defence Forces attacked a cargo ship carrying humanitarian aid products to Gaza in the international waters and killed ten Turkish citizens. After this incident, Turkey put three pre-conditions for normalizing the relations: an apology, an indemnity to be paid to the families of the incident’s victims and the lifting of the embargo imposed on Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was persuaded by then-US president Barrack Obama to offer a verbal apology in 2013. The Israeli government agreed to pay a certain amount to the families of the victims. On the lifting of embargo, Netanyahu said this could be done if the security situation warrants it.
However, President Erdogan maintained his harsh rhetoric against Israel. In a conversation with the journalists after a Friday prayer in July 2014, he said: “Our diplomatic relations are at present at the level of chargé d’affaires. Israel conducts a policy of state terror. We cannot look at Israel in a positive way. As long as I will be in my present position (prime minister), I will never think positively about Israel.”
Despite this strong tone of animosity, efforts to improve relations continued among diplomats. When a framework was agreed upon, President Erdogan made a more conciliatory statement in January 2016 and said: “Israel needs a country like Turkey in the region. We have to admit that we need Israel as well”. Soon after this statement, in June 2016, diplomatic relations returned to the ambassadorial level.
This truce lasted only two years. When the Trump administration transferred the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, Turkey withdrew its ambassador in Tel Aviv and Israel withdrew its ambassador in Ankara. Erdogan, in his capacity as the rotating chairman of the Islamic Cooperation Organization, convened an emergency summit, which in May 2018 adopted a strongly worded communique saying: “Israel committed savage crimes with the backing of Donald Trump’s administration, emboldened by the US decision to recognize Jerusalem”.
Despite the fluctuating nature of the relations in the political sphere, economic relations have developed satisfactorily and steadily. Paradoxically, the biggest increase in trade relations took place in 2010 and 2011 when the political relations were at their lowest level. During the 16 years of AKP rule, foreign trade increased 4.5 fold.
Turkey’s relations with Israel have always been part and parcel of domestic politics in Turkey. It needs to be de-emotionalized with the efforts of the political leaders.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Twitter: @yakis_yasar