Turkish–Israeli normalization on hold
“How do hedgehogs make love? Very carefully,” says the ancient joke. That is how the normalization process between Israel and Turkey was described by one diplomat around a year ago.
Cautiousness, especially on the Turkish side, was not too surprising because the normalization agreement - which the two countries signed in June 2016, heralding an end to a six-year crisis - was not enough to immunize the relationship against vulnerabilities.
In fact, the deal held for barely a year, as Turkey decided to suspend the normalization process following tension in July 2017 between Israelis and Palestinians over the Temple Mount.
The most important accomplishment in the implementation of the 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, blocking any future attempts to prosecute the Israelis involved.
Another positive development was the resumption of political consultations, as the two countries are directly affected by ongoing turmoil in the region, especially the war in Syria. Political consultations took place in February 2017 in Ankara at the level of foreign ministry undersecretaries. Under normal circumstances the Turkish undersecretary should have reciprocated by going to Israel for a new round of consultations, but after the decision to freeze normalization no such visit is currently envisaged.
The decision to suspend normalization came after tension last year over the Temple Mount situation. The deadly attack last July on Temple Mount and Israel’s decision to temporarily close the compound (later installing metal detectors at several entrances) led to deadly clashes. This subsequently led to a war of words between Turkey and Israel.
Turkey was initially less enthusiastic than Israel in the normalization process, so President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan probably did not have to think twice when deciding to freeze it. What’s more, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital must have made Erdoğan feel vindicated. He reacted strongly against the decision and hosted an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul over the Jerusalem situation, during which he did not miss the opportunity to take aim at Israel.
As May 15 approaches - the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel, which the Palestinians call the Great Catastrophe (Nakba) - there is no doubt that Turkish–Israeli relations will again go downhill. Diplomatic sources say Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem by May to mark the anniversary will likely draw a reaction from Turkey, which may even include recalling the Turkish ambassador for consultations.
Ankara is preparing to try to mobilize the Arab-Islamic world ahead of May 15, which will certainly cause an additional irritant in ties between Turkey and Israel.
However, trade and tourism seem to remain immune to the cold political atmosphere between the two countries. Israel was among the top 10 countries for Turkish exports in 2017, while Antalya was number one destination for Israeli tourists during the recent Passover festival.