Turkey-Israel elections left behind, normalization up ahead?

Turkey-Israel elections left behind, normalization up ahead?

Turkey and Israel currently share a common fate. General elections were held in Israel three months ago and a new coalition in the Knesset was only last month formed - and is still “in flux.”

Turkey, on the other hand, held its own elections on June 7 and is currently in the phase of forming a coalition government.

The following questions therefore arise: How does Israel perceive the election results in Turkey? Will the elections in the two countries affect bilateral relations in any way?

I had the chance to discuss these questions with Alon Liel, the former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Liel served two terms in Ankara as the head of the Israeli mission in Turkey and still actively and closely follows relations between Turkey and Israel.

First and foremost, does normalization loom on the horizon in the post-election period? 

Liel reminded me that the coalition in Israel is still in flux. In other words, Israeli laws enable the prime minister to invite an opposition party to the coalition. According to Liel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning such a move and may offer a left-wing party such as Labor to join the government. As a result, Liel foresees a possible change in relations if a left-wing party joins the coalition, especially if the new Foreign Minister is from that party.

However, he stresses that normalization also requires a change in Ankara. He argues that if the prime minister and foreign minister in the new government are again from the AKP, the chances of normalization would decrease.

Another game-changer could be Israel’s changing attitude on its embargo in Gaza. Liel says Israel has recently made it very difficult for Turkey to deliver aid to Gaza. However, if Tel Aviv softens its approach then relations might be positively affected. 

The natural flow of our conversation brought us to the topic of Syria. There have recently been reports that Israel attacked some Hezbollah targets in Syria. Liel argue that Israel’s only objective in Syria is the protection of the Golan Heights, which is internationally recognized as Syrian territory but has been occupied and administered by Israel since 1967. 

According to him, Israel is trying to create a security belt around Golan and attacks with drones any group that approaches the region – whether it is Islamic State, al-Nusra, or the forces of Bashar al-Assad.
But does Tel Aviv want the fall of Assad or not? 

“For us, al-Assad means Iran. Iran means Hezbollah. So al-Assad and Islamic State and Hezbollah are equal threats for us. All are terrible for Israel,” Liel replies. “But we don’t intervene in Syria’s domestic affairs. We are not fighting anyone in Syria. Our only priority is the Golan Heights.”

Al-Assad is not the only point on which Turkey and Israel overlap. Another common ground is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Liel says Israel defines them as “good rebels” or “the good guys.” Tel Aviv provides these good guys with humanitarian aid. 

What about arms and money? Liel’s reply is short: “I don’t think so.” But he also adds a critical comment: “If Israel embraced the FSA, this would greatly harm the group.”

Does Israel coordinate its support for the FSA with Turkey? “We are not cooperating with Turkey on anything. Ankara has even not accepted our offer to help the Syrian refugees within Turkey,” he says, recalling the fact that the foreign ministers of both countries have not even talked on the phone for almost six years.

Our last topic is the Kurds. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said last year when he was speaker of the Knesset that Israel supports the foundation of an independent Kurdish state. Meanwhile, two days ago, when she was evaluating the recent electoral success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, Israel’s new justice minister also said Israel needs to develop its relations with Kurds in the region.

So does Israel support an independent Kurdistan? According to Liel, Tel Aviv supports it “not officially, but unofficially.”

He emphasizes that the regional context demands the development of a strategic partnership between Turkey, Israel and the Kurds. Accordingly, Turkey and Israel are the only secular and stable countries in the region and the Kurds, as a secular and increasingly powerful actor in the region, need to be included in this strategic triangle.

Liel concluded our conversation by referring to the overlapping strategic interests of Turkey and Israel. “Iraq and Syria are dissolving. Both Turkey and Israel would prefer these countries not to be controlled by ISIS or Iran, but by the FSA and the Kurds,” he said.

Still, even though the two countries share a number of common enemies and partners, the road to conciliation seems to be long and bumpy.