Israel’s president is on his way to visit Turkey this week and thus open a door for an improvement in a relationship at such a low that the two may have nothing to lose in trying to rebuild ties, former Israeli ambassador to Turkey Alon Liel said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
Under Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, strong ties with Israel have diminished progressively throughout his two decades in power. The Israeli raid on the MV Mavi Marmara in 2010, Erdoğan’s vitriolic attacks on Israel for its policy towards the Palestinians, and the growing alignment between Tel Aviv and Turkish rivals like Greece and Cyprus have left the once robust relationship in tatters.
But for the last year, Turkish officials have extended olive branches to Israel in the hopes of rebuilding relations. Liel, who also served as Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that the growing regional isolation of Turkey as a result of Erdoğan’s policies has pushed him to seek ways out of this confinement.
Liel said that “mutual hostility” and distrust towards Erdoğan left Israel disinclined to accept early overtures from Turkey. However, this changed, he added, with the election of President Isaac Herzog in July 2021. Since coming to office, Herzog has spoken to Erdoğan three times over the phone and personally engaged with the Turkish leader to secure the release of an Israeli couple on vacation in Istanbul after being arrested on espionage charges. By cultivating this relationship, Herzog has helped shape a view in Israel that rapprochement with Turkey was worth pursuing, said Liel.
“Over the last few months, Herzog started believing…He convinced the entire establishment to give it a try and here we go,” Liel told the Jerusalem Post.
The ambassador also made note of the impact of the August 2020 Abraham Accords that saw a normalisation in ties between Israel and four Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This, Liel notes, also may have influenced Erdoğan to seek his own normalisation with Israel.
As for what benefit Israel could reap from improved relations with Turkey, Liel said there are economic benefits to realise. Despite the poor relationship at the political level, Israeli tourists continue to travel to Turkey for vacation and economic ties advanced even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the geopolitical level, he suggested that better relations with Turkey could also aid Israeli policy towards Iran, a state with deep animosity held towards Israel and a complicated relationship with Turkey.
“There’s a lot to gain by influencing Turkey to join Israel’s side, opposite the Iranian-Qatari axis,” Liel said. “I think we have nothing to lose. In the current state of play, we have our hands on the tap. Erdoğan courted us, we opened the tap.”