Bilateral commercial ties between Turkey and Israel are stronger than ever in contrast to continued public hostility between the governments of both countries despite recent efforts to improve relations, writes Aykan Erdemir and David May


Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy have advanced plans to build the world’s longest and deepest pipeline to export natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, Israeli media reported over the weekend. Notably absent from this massive project is Turkey. Though a Turkey-Israel pipeline could be less expensive, frayed relations with Ankara have likely scuttled that option.

Turkey stood to gain tremendously from the seemingly bygone pipeline deal with Israel, which would have generated significant revenues and helped diversify Turkey’s energy imports. Ankara procures nearly 60 percent of its gas from Russia, which has proved to be a vulnerability amid tensions with Moscow.

But ties with Jerusalem have been even more fraught. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “terrorist” in May. The two countries have been sparring for a decade, but economic ties have remained robust. Given Erdogan’s anti-Israel fixations, however, bilateral relations will likely remain compartmentalized, with flourishing trade accompanied by transactional ties that will be completely devoid of trust.

Historically, Turkish-Israeli cooperation in foreign and security affairs has been a win-win relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize the Jewish state in 1949. During the 1990s, economic relations received a boost from the growing cooperation in defense and intelligence, with Israel modernizing Turkey’s F-4E jets and M-60 tanks, and supplying Heron drones. Meanwhile, Israel’s partnership with Turkey alleviated its isolation in the Middle East. Israeli pilots also trained in Turkey, which provided them the experience of flying long-range missions over mountainous areas resembling Iranian topography.

“Israel has grown closer to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, an alliance impelled by a common fear of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood”

Erdogan’s heated Davos exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009 and the next year’s flotilla crisis marked a sharp departure. Israel has subsequently sought out new partnerships with Turkey’s adversaries, Greece and Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean. In the Middle East, Israel has grown closer to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, an alliance impelled by a common fear of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood – a global Islamist network that the Turkish president openly supports.

Erdogan’s first attempt at normalization with Israel in June 2016 came in the aftermath of Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015. As Moscow scaled up its military presence and operations in Syria, the Turkish president felt an urgent need to break from the “precious loneliness” he had imposed on his country. Israel, while wary of the Turkish strongman, was keen to pursue rapprochement with Turkey as a means to counterbalance Iran.

Despite the exchange of ambassadors in December 2016, Turkish-Israeli relations have remained tense. Although, Turkish and Israeli top soldiers met in January 2017 for the first time since rapprochement, diplomatic spats have prevented the trust necessary for developing productive security and intelligence cooperation. This past July, Erdogan compared Israeli political leaders to Hitler. Netanyahu doesn’t think much of Erdogan, either. He tweeted, “Turkey, under Erdogan’s rule, is becoming a dark dictatorship.” And, on Wednesday, Israel announced its decision not to appoint a new ambassador in Ankara to replace its former ambassador in retaliation for Ankara’s decision not to return its ambassador to Tel Aviv.

A protester holds the Palestinian flag during a protest rally in Istanbul, Turkey on May 18, 2018, against the US embassy move to Jerusalem (Ozan Kose/AFP)

Erdogan’s aggressive meddling in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is undoubtedly a major source of the mutual distrust. The Turkish leader’s ongoing attempts to purchase land and fund activist groups in East Jerusalem is so pronounced that the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan all warned Israel in July that it was “sleeping at the wheel.” Ankara has expanded its reach by organizing Turkish tour groups, and maintaining a steady presence of Turkish protesters around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Erdogan also has a long track record of supporting Hamas, which continues its violent campaign against Israel.

“Remarkably, even as Turkey acts as a sponsor and protector of Hamas, the volume of trade between Turkey and Israel continues to increase”

Since January, Israel has cracked down on Hamas activities stemming from Turkey on multiple occasions. This includes the January 2018 discovery of a massive Hamas fundraising and money-laundering scheme operating in Turkey and the March 2018 Israeli arrest of a West Bank student accused of receiving 150,000 euros from Hamas members in Turkey. In April, Israel assassinated a Hamas drone expert in Malaysia who frequently traveled to Turkey, and in June arrested a Turkish woman accused of delivering cash and equipment to Hamas.

Remarkably, even as Turkey acts as a sponsor and protector of Hamas, the volume of trade between Turkey and Israel continues to increase. Israel is now one of the top 10 export markets for Turkish products. Turkish Airlines trails right behind Israel’s national carrier El Al as the second most popular carrier out of Tel Aviv. Israel is the top buyer of both Azerbaijani and Iraqi Kurdish oil in the world, owing in part to Turkish facilitation. Yet, all of this appears unstable every time Erdogan decries “the interest rate lobby,” Erdogan’s euphemism for global Jewry.

Erdogan would still like to reap the rewards from continued economic ties with Israel. But his anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli vitriol, which is amplified by government-funded and controlled media, have interfered with trade relations, as with the natural gas pipeline. Turkish-Israeli cooperation will remain stunted and tactical at best. For anything deeper, both countries will likely have to wait for a post-Erdogan era.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.

David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter@DavidSamuelMay.