In a Middle East seemingly awash in new diplomatic initiatives since the 2019 Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states, the meeting between Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu meeting this month in New York stands out in terms of both strategic significance and drama.
As a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, I can attest that these two leaders have been personally and politically at odds for the last 14 years. But now, they may overcome their mutual antipathy sufficiently to help maintain security in a region buffeted by Iranian terrorists and Russian destabilization that is less trusting of American security commitment.
Short of the much anticipated but still uncertain Saudi-Israeli diplomatic recognition, improved Turkish-Israeli relations could have the biggest impact on the region, beginning with Syria but extending through Iraq to the Caucasus. In short, this is not good news for Iran or Assad.
The flurry of alleged diplomatic breakthroughs in the Middle East in recent years comes in two flavors. First, seeming rapprochement between opponents — the Chinese-brokered Iranian-Saudi understanding, the Arab League welcome to Syria. Second, an end to sparring among the many American partners in the region — the Gulf Cooperation Council versus Qatar, Turkey against most Arab states, Israel and its Abraham Accord partners, and now Israel and Turkey.
Both represent hedging shaped by global events, particularly the reprioritization of American foreign policy towards Russia and China, necessarily at the expense of the Middle East.
Outreach between Syria and Iran, on the one hand, and various Arab states on the other, does not really guarantee change to the policies that produced conflict, such as Syria’s alliance with Russia and Iran at the expense of its own population and Iran’s hegemonic drive into Arab states. Outreach can calm the intensity of conflict without necessarily removing it. The analogy is more in line with U.S. arms control and European security agreements with the Soviets in the 1970s than with China’s 1972 transformation or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Meanwhile, although the U.S. certainly has not left the region or abandoned its security commitments to it, its decreased willingness to respond to every Iranian, Russian, Syrian or terrorist move encourages “by-with-through” strategies putting regional partners in the forefront. Under such circumstances, with the American security blanket present but more threadbare, American partners have begun weighing the costs of disputes among themselves versus the benefits of banding together to better complement Washington.
The Turkish-Israeli relationship has had a particularly torturous history. Turkey, one of the first states to recognize Israel, and the last remaining Middle East majority Islamic state with a vibrant if small Jewish minority, was long a diplomatic plus for an Israel otherwise surrounded by enemy states. In the 1980s, supported by the U.S., Israel and Turkey further enhanced relations. Alongside growing trade and tourism, the two states began diplomatic, military and limited intelligence cooperation, including Israeli Air Force training in Turkey. At the high point, in 2008, Turkey was mediating between Syria and Israel for a possible diplomatic breakthrough on the Golan Heights.
This all came tumbling down rapidly, for both personal and strategic reasons. Prime Minister Erdogan, outraged at Israel launching attacks into Gaza in late 2008 without informing its negotiating partner Ankara, broke off the Syria-Israel facilitation. Erdogan then expressed his anger directly to Israeli President Peres during a forum in Davos.
But the breaking point especially in the Erdogan-Netanyahu personal relationship came with the Spring 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. Israeli commandos attacked the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, part of a humanitarian convoy organized by a pro-Erdogan Turkish Islamic charity seeking to break the Israeli sea blockade of Gaza. The attack killed nine Turks and one Turkish-American. The two sides and the U.S. had previously worked out arrangements for a show of force and then de-escalation, but communications breakdowns led to the tragedy.
These specific incidents played out within broader friction pitting Turkey against Israel and many Arab countries, through its support for Muslim Brotherhood movements struggling for power in Egypt and elsewhere during the Arab Spring. Erdogan’s motivations for this destabilizing behavior included the religious-ideological ties his wing of Turkish political Islam has with the organization, as well as Turkish regional ambitions which Israel and Arab states felt threatening.
This culminated in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2020-21, with Turkey lining up against Egypt and other Arab states as well as France in Libya, and a diplomatic conflict over the East Mediterranean Gas Forum allying Israel with Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, other European Union states and the U.S. while excluding Turkey.
This decade of frenetic diplomatic activity thus brought Turkey little, and it consequently has shifted its politics dramatically, reaching out to Arab states and Israel. Meanwhile, the Gas Forum started foundering, and Turkey acted decisively in the West’s interests from 2020 on against Russian military moves in Syria, Libya and most importantly, Ukraine.
Israel, at the same time, advanced its hedging strategy with the Abraham Accords and the ongoing courting of Saudi Arabia. It had maintained good trade relations with Turkey, but now has recognized commonalities with Ankara, including a commercially more sensible way to export gas than across the Mediterranean deep, and contesting Iran’s influence in the arc from Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan to Azerbaijan.
Israeli President Herzog reached out to Erdogan, visited Turkey in 2022 and generally encouraged the whole process. In recent months, both Netanyahu and Erdogan have warmed to the idea. Apart from energy, both sides are interested in trade and investment opportunities. Here, the United Arab Emirates, with its diplomatic-economic examples, is setting the pace. It has significantly improved its trade with Israel and invested substantially in the Turkish economy. More such regional economic synergy is beneficial to both Turkey and Israel with their versatile, advanced economies.
While the official driving force, energy cooperation, was stressed in reporting and informal readouts of the meeting afterward, officials informally highlighted the “regional stability” language in both countries’ commentaries as referring to containing Iran. Turkey and Israel have military forces operating generally against Assad and his allies in Syria. While closer military coordination for various reasons is unlikely, each side’s presence complements the other’s and complicates military and diplomatic moves by Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners.
At a minimum, greater awareness of each other’s interests and operations will further freeze the Syrian conflict. That is not an end in itself, but blocks an Assad victory and leaves the door open to eventual more active international engagement in Syria.
The Turkish-Israeli honeymoon, however, remains transactional. In particular, the Israeli government’s behavior towards the Palestinians (mentioned by the Turks in referring to the meeting) and especially Jerusalem will remain sensitive to Erdogan, and potentially limit if not the relationship’s hardware, at least its warmth.
Time will tell how rapidly the two sides will extend relations, and what specific projects they will undertake. Nevertheless, more cooperation between two of America’s three most important regional partners provides Washington with another lever in its “by-with-through” partners strategy. But there is also a caution for Washington in this development.
Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, just like the others between various Arab states and Israel, signals concern about American staying power and credibility in the region. And the more that local actors take the lead, the less control the U.S. can exercise in what they drag themselves, the region and even the U.S., into.
Ambassador James Jeffrey the chair of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program. Jeffrey resigned from the foreign service in 2020 after 37 years of service. He was ambassador to Iraq, Turkey and Albania, as well as deputy national security adviser.