Where will Turkey–Israel relations go after elections?
One thing is clear: Assuming that both U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are to remain in office until the end of their respective terms - surviving the different investigations against them - it would be unrealistic to expect warmer weather at the political level between Ankara and Tel Aviv.
All political leaders and parties in Turkey are critical of American and Israeli policies on the Palestinian problem. This does not stem from cheap election populism but rather reflects the genuine sentiment of a very large majority of the Turkish population, who felt disgusted watching the laughter of participants of the opening ceremony of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem while Israeli armed forces were killing dozens of unarmed Palestinians in Gaza.
The normalization between Turkey and Israel had already been on hold following tension in July 2017 between Israelis and Palestinians over the Temple Mount. Trump’s announcement that the U.S. embassy would be moved to Jerusalem then killed any possibility of removing fingers from the pause button and returning to the normalization process.
The most important accomplishment in the implementation of the normalization deal was the return of ambassadors and the settlement of the Mavi Marmara issue. Israel paid $22 million in compensation to the families of nine Turks killed in that incident and eased some of the restrictions on Turkish imports into Gaza. In return, the Turkish Parliament passed legislation cancelling all pending lawsuits against Israelis involved in the incident and blocking any future attempts to prosecute those involved.
Following the symbolic opening of the U.S. embassy, the Turkish government recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Tel Aviv for consultations, also asking the Israeli envoy to Ankara to return to his country for a while.
If an opposition candidate were to become the president, and as of now the chances of Muharrem İnce - the candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), look strongest to remain in any second round rather than İYİ (Good) Party candidate Meral Akşener - we could witness a quick return of the Turkish envoy back to Israel. CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to improve strained relations with third countries, and İnce has also been critical of the absence of Turkish envoys in certain foreign capitals. In a recent televised interview İnce said he would maintain relations with Israel.
But when it comes to the nature of this relationship, things get more complicated as İnce has been critical of Turkey’s imports from Israel, as well as the transfer of Iraqi oil to Israel via Turkish ports. Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, has criticized the Mavi Marmara deal - which will get backing from the Saadet (Felicity) Party, the CHP’s ally in the election alliance. However, the implementation of such electoral pledges may not be very likely as the opposition, if it were to win, will be busy with other priorities and burning economic and foreign policy issues.
Erdoğan has also pledged to review Turkey’s economic and trade ties with Israel, a course of action that was not on the agenda until recently. The economic dimension had remained immune to the political deterioration, with trade relations increasing over many years with a trade surplus in favor of Turkey.
If Erdoğan wins the snap election then Turkey will find itself at a crossroads in its ties with Israel, especially considering the leadership he has assumed on the issue in mobilizing the international community and setting an example to the Arab/Islamic world. The choices will be as follows: Turkey’s relations with Israel could continue as before, continuing to confront it on the Palestinian issue while keeping the economic dimension separate; or it could take a more radical course supported by hardliners who argue for the complete severing of all relations with Israel. Erdoğan may well endorse the second course on a “lighter” scale, taking measures that do not have a drastic effect on trade ties.
While it can be argued that Israel has given a measured response to recent incidents, simply asking the Turkish consul general in Jerusalem to leave, the possible role of pro-Israel lobbies in Washington in efforts to delay the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey should not be disregarded. Israel’s possible behind the scenes lobbying will certainly factor in future decisions.