Turkey mends fences with Israel and Russia – thawing two of its frostiest relationships

Defrosting. Alexey Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/EPA

Turkey’s tough and outspoken government has lately made a habit of digging in its heels when it comes to diplomatic conflict, even with some of its most crucial allies. But over just a couple of days at the end of June, its approach to some of the most glaring problems started to change.

First, Ankara expressed its regret for downing a Russian Su-24 fighter plane in November 2015 – a gesture gladly received by Moscow. It then signed a deal with Israel, which ended six years of strained relationships caused by the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists on a ship carrying unofficial aid to the Gaza strip.

On the face of it, these diplomatic thaws might not look like much. States fight, states make up; that’s just how it works. But in Turkey’s case, it’s a big deal indeed.

Under its former prime minister and current president, Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has never been keen to reconcile on any terms other than its own. Although Erdoğan’s AK Party has long promoted its policy of aiming for “zero problems” with its neigbours, recent years have been full of uncompromising statements and confrontational gestures rather than olive branches.

Thanks to various political strains, Turkey has in recent years withdrawn its ambassadors from Israel, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Austria. The escalation of tensions with Israel and Russia after the Mavi Marmara and Su-24 incidents could have been avoided, but in both cases, neither side had the political goodwill to do what was necessary.

In the case of Turkey, already in 2009 Erdoğan stormed off a stage at the Davos Forum after a discussion about Gaza with the then-Israeli president, Shimon Peres. At the time, he repeatedly criticised Israel over its Palestinian policy and he has often been chastised for using offensive (and to some, anti-Semitic) language.

Similarly, after the downing of the Russian warplane, Erdoğan engaged in an exchange of accusations with Vladimir Putin, rejecting the idea of making amends to Moscow on the grounds that Turkey deserved the apology.

The rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, meanwhile, has been underway for a good while.

Back to normality

Back in 2013, the two struck an agreement on two sticking points: Israel officially apologised and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the Mavi Marmara victims, later fixed at US$20m. And in return, Turkey agreed to pass a law cancelling all legal claims for the incident that had been filed in its courts, and to block any future ones.

Turkey’s last precondition underlined the need to lift the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip; on the Israeli side, closing Hamas’s office in Istanbul was a priority. As recently as March 2016, the two positions seemed irreconcilable, but the two were nonetheless able to reach an agreement.

Getting closer. EPA/Abir Sultan

The naval blockade of Gaza will continue, but Turkey will be able to provide humanitarian help for the Palestinians, including building a hospital, a power plant and a desalination station. On the other side, Hamas’s office in Istanbul will remain open, but on the condition that it is not allowed to be used for planning terror activities.

At this point it’s hard to judge Turkey’s commitment to these rapprochements – but two things are clear enough.

Open for business

First, there has been a marked change in the mentality of Turkey’s top politicians, who seem to have suddenly restocked their reserves of political goodwill. And beyond that, whatever their attitude, they have apparently realised that Turkey will never be as self-sufficient as it has repeatedly tried to prove.

Turkey’s dependence on tourism is a very good example. The country could be set to lose as much as US$12 billion this year as its deteriorating security situation puts off thousands of foreigners – and Israelis and especially Russians have long been among the country’s most numerous visitors.

Then there’s energy. Turkey badly needs to diversify its energy sources, and Israel can help it do so. Many onlookers supposed that the strained relationship with Russia, for some time Turkey’s main energy supplier, was the principal motive for Erdoğan’s newfound openness towards Israel.

But then came the opening to Russia. Erdoğan’s unilateral expression of “regret and sorrow” for the jet downing was just the first step. Russia is demanding not only an official apology, but actual compensation; the government’s words need to be matched with deeds. And yet there are, for once, signs that Turkey may actually come through. Top Turkish politicians have even suggested that Turkey might consider paying financial support to the family of the Su-24 pilot.

These gestures are already paying off. Russia reciprocated Ankara’s gesture by allowing Turkish citizens to work in Russia again, and by starting to relax various sanctions it imposed after the shooting down.

These thaws might sound like incremental diplomatic manoeuvres, but they are crucial to the future of Turkey as its domestic situation comes under more scrutiny than ever and the country faces a dramatic uptick in security threats.

And with Europe still dependent on it for help with the refugee crisis, a conciliatory and more open Turkey would be much better for the balance of the region and the world. Having managed to estrange some of its most vital partners over the last few years, Turkey seems to be rationalising its approach to them once again.

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