Turkey, Israel, and the Road to Capitol Hill

by September 2022
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid meet in Ankara. Photo credit: REUTERS

On August 17, 2022 when the governments of Turkey and Israel announced their agreement to restore full diplomatic relations, Washington voiced its approval and support. But it was not the Biden administration that promoted the reconciliation between the two states; rather, the initiative appears to be part of President Erdoğan’s efforts to avoid regional isolation and improve relations in Washington.

>> Window on Washington: Read more from Dov S. Zakheim

In recent years Turkey has found itself at odds not only with Israel but also with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Syria. Its troops continue to hold territory in Syria and Iraq. Faced with growing challenges in the region, as well as increasing friction with NATO and the US, Erdoğan did an about-face and reached out to his neighbors in the region. While Erdoğan has had little luck patching up matters with Riyadh and Cairo, he found a warmer welcome in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

Turkey–Israel relations have always been dynamic. Diplomatic relations were restored in 2016 but were strained again two years later when Washington recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The first hint of yet another attempt at reconciliation came in May 2020 when El Al Airlines resumed cargo flights to Istanbul—for the first time in a decade—to bring medical supplies from Israel during COVID-19. In July 2021, Erdoğan phoned Isaac Herzog to congratulate him on his inauguration as president of Israel. Herzog visited Ankara in March 2022 and seemed delighted with the visit; Erdoğan appeared considerably more restrained.

Nevertheless, high level contacts, intelligence cooperation, and trade ties continued. Earlier this year the foreign ministers exchanged visits. Information sharing helped foil an Iranian plot to attack Israeli tourists in Istanbul. When Israel and Turkey signed a civil aviation agreement in July, and Ankara’s reaction to the latest outburst of violence between Israel and Gaza-based terrorists was relatively mild, Prime Minister Lapid concluded that the time had come to upgrade the diplomatic relationship.

Bilateral tensions remain, however. Turkey bitterly opposes the Syrian Kurds, whom Israel has supported in their conflict with ISIS. Moreover, in the past dozen years, Israel has moved closer to both Greece and Cyprus and has reached understandings with both countries regarding natural gas drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has long been at odds with Athens and Nicosia. Moreover, Turkey’s own claims to gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean overlap with those of Cyprus.

Israel exports to Turkey totaled some $1.5 billion, while its imports from Turkey exceeded $4.6 billion in 2020. Both Israeli and Turkish spokespersons have spoken of the prospect of accelerated economic and technical cooperation between the two countries. With the Turkish economy in the doldrums, and a presidential election to be held in 2023, Erdoğan would certainly welcome any good economic news arising from an upswing in Turkish–Israeli trade.

Indeed, there is some speculation that Erdoğan hopes to reach an agreement with Israel to build a gas pipeline through Turkey that both would provide sorely needed supplies to Europe and reduce European dependence on Russian gas. Not all Israelis favor the idea, however, given Erdoğan’s previous decisions to rupture relations with the Jewish state.

There is another reason for Erdoğan’s latest effort in reaching out to Jerusalem. Turkey’s ties to NATO in general and to Washington in particular have frayed because of its mass incarcerations of journalists, politicians, military personnel, and others whom the Turkish regime perceives as enemies. Moreover, Erdoğan has not only angered Washington by acquiring Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems, but Moscow’s official news agency has reported a second Turkish purchase of the systems, although Ankara denies it. Even if the report is another example of Russian misinformation, Erdoğan is already highly unpopular in Washington, especially in the US Congress.

For years Turkish governments viewed the relationship with Israel as a vehicle for cementing support on Capitol Hill and often reached out to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for assistance in this regard. Erdoğan may well have concluded that upgrading ties with Israel might once again improve Turkey’s image in the Congress. To achieve that goal, however, will not be easy. Erdoğan’s summit with Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, did not sit well in Washington, nor has his stonewalling of Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO. Even if pro-Israel members of Congress are willing to overlook a dozen years of Turkish hostility to the Jewish state, that may not be enough. Erdoğan’s new relationship with Israel is certainly welcome. But he will need to go much further to win back friends for Turkey on Capitol Hill and in the Biden administration.

>> Window on Washington: Read more from Dov S. Zakheim

Dov S. Zakheim
Dov S. Zakheim is chair of the Board of Advisors of the JST, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and vice chair of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former US under secretary of defense (2001–2004) and deputy under secretary of defense (1985–1987).
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