Iran helped Turkey and Israel mend their ties. Here’s how.

Source: MENA

September 9, 2022 • 9:53 a.m. ET

Iran helped Turkey and Israel mend their ties. Here’s how.

Ksenia Svetlova

In June, in the middle of the summer holiday season, alarming news emerged about the dangers posed to Israeli tourists visiting Turkey. According to intelligence provided by Turkish and Israeli spy agencies, agents of the Iranian regime were following Israeli citizens, with the intention of kidnapping or killing them. Upon hearing the news, Israel immediately urged its citizens to leave Turkey and avoid traveling to Istanbul due to the impending terrorist threat. Jerusalem also warmly thanked the Turkish authorities for their fruitful cooperation on intelligence and security issues, indicating a high level of coordination with Ankara.

The summer plot against the Israelis in Istanbul was foiled and Turkish authorities arrested suspects in June and July. In early August, Turkish authorities released rare footage showing the capture of Iranian agents following Israeli tourists to Istanbul, providing more insight into Iran’s plans to harm Israeli citizens. Both Israeli and Turkish media highlighted the mutual struggle of the two countries’ respective security agencies to prevent the Iranians from carrying out terrorist acts against Israeli holidaymakers on Turkish soil.

This was the background to the visit of Yair Lapid – the future Prime Minister – to Ankara in June. A few months earlier, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog, who had invested considerable efforts in reviving bilateral relations between the two countries, also visited the Turkish capital, where he met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This rapprochement quickly led to the return of the ambassadors and the full restoration of diplomatic relations, ending a long period of tense relations between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Despite the rift that began with the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010 – some would say it has deepened since President Erdogan came to power in 2002 – Israel and Turkey have maintained economic relations. These ties seem to have a life of their own and have continued to grow despite the hostile political climate and the lack of respective ambassadors. In 2020 alone, Israel exported $1.5 billion worth of goods to Turkey, while Turkish exports reached $4.67 billion. In comparison, Russian exports to Israel amounted to $1 billion in 2020.

Both economies have benefited from these ties, and there is no doubt that the volume of bilateral trade will continue to grow after the full restoration of diplomatic relations. In the field of energy, President Erdogan has expressed hope for Israeli-Turkish cooperation in establishing a gas pipeline from Europe to bring Israeli gas to Europe. This development can serve both countries – a NATO ally and America’s closest ally in the Middle East – by strengthening their regional and global influence.

In addition to diplomacy, tourism, trade and energy, there is also a security dimension to the restoration of Israeli-Turkish relations. For years, Turkey acted as a patron of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist movement that took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and became one of the main political and military forces in the Palestinian territories. Israel has always insisted that Hamas leaders leave Turkey as a precondition for restoring relations between the two countries, and that Turkish religious organizations stop interfering in the situation at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Due to a significant geopolitical shift in the region, with Arab states normalizing relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords and promoting relations with its nemesis Greece, Turkey is now realigned with the Gulf countries and eased tensions with Egypt, leading to a decrease in support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, it remains to be seen whether the Hamas leadership will soon seek to relocate elsewhere and end its malign activity against Israel on Turkish soil.

Another issue of great strategic importance to Israel is how the two countries can cooperate against Iran, which could soon be relieved of certain sanctions due to a possible relaunch of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). of 2015, thus benefiting from an unprecedented economic and diplomatic situation. Renaissance. It is obvious that Israel sees Iran as its worst enemy and existential threat, however, Turkey also often finds itself on the opposite side of the Islamic Republic, especially in Syria and Azerbaijan.

Moreover, like Israel, Turkey is wary of growing Russian-Iranian cooperation and fears the possible militarization of Iran’s nuclear program if the JCPOA is not revived, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

In recent years, Turkey and Iran have strengthened their economic cooperation. However, even though their economic interests sometimes overlap, the geopolitical divisions between the countries have also widened. The recent Iranian terrorist plot against Israeli citizens is a good example; Ankara has fumed over the Iranian attempt to compromise its security and undermine its diplomatic goals of improving relations with Jerusalem and Washington. Indeed, cooperation with Israel against Iran’s malign regional activities could well serve Turkey’s interests in the United States, increasing synergy among its allies and providing a strong front against Tehran’s regional ambitions.

Turkey’s shift in policy towards Israel, Hamas and Iran was well seen during the recent Israeli military operation Breaking Dawn in early August. Although Ankara was quick to condemn Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip and called for “restraint”, the condemnation itself was markedly more moderate than on previous occasions. And, just days after the operation, Ankara and Jerusalem reestablished their ties in a festive way. This shift in attitude may have something to do with the fact that the targeted group in Gaza was not Hamas, but rather the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) – a pro-Iranian movement, heavily sponsored by Tehran. The PIJ had verbally attacked the restoration of Ankara’s relations with Israel.

It remains to be seen how Israel and Turkey will play the Iranian card in the future, as some regional powers, such as the United Arab Emirates, seek to ease tensions in the Gulf. However, it seems that Ankara and Jerusalem will continue to work together to prevent terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens in Turkey, as this threat has not yet been fully eliminated, and to explore the possibility of pursuing common goals vis-à-vis vis the Islamic Republic and its many regional proxies.

Ksenia Svetlova is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and Director of the Israel-Middle East Relations Program at Mitvim. Follow her on Twitter: @KseniaSvetlova.

Further reading

Image: Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attend a news conference during their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, June 23, 2022. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

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