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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Israel-Turkey relations after AKP’s victory

Key Points

  • Though Israel would like to see an improvement in Israel-Turkey relations, the third consecutive election victory for the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) makes a significant improvement unlikely in the near future.
  • Whilst the foreign policy vision of the AKP is for Turkey to be a bridge and mediator between competing forces in the region, the tension between Turkey and Israel has played well for the AKP in Arab and Turkish domestic public opinion.
  • It will be welcome news in Israel that the failure of the AKP to achieve a two-thirds election majority will limit its ability to carry out sweeping internal changes in Turkey without the support of other political factions.

Election results and the domestic Turkish context

On Sunday, 12 June, Turkey’s ruling Islamic AKP party was re-elected to another term in government, having won a majority in the 550-member parliament.  The main opposition was the secular and centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP).  Significant secondary parties included the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), representing radical secular Turkish nationalists, and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which represents the country’s Kurdish minority.

With the Turkish economy strong, the victory of the AKP, which has ruled Turkey since 2002, was widely predicted.  Economic reforms introduced by the party are largely credited with Turkey’s 8.9% growth rate last year. 

The elections were billed as being of profound importance to Turkey’s future direction.  Prime minister and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accused of being increasingly authoritarian and of curbing press freedoms and political checks and balances. Had the AKP won a two-thirds majority, they would have had the required parliamentary majority to reform the constitution without the cooperation of other parties. Erdogan has spoken about introducing a presidential system of government, and is believed to want the role for himself.

It appears that the AKP’s victory has fallen short of attaining the two-thirds majority. This does not rule out constitutional reform, which is widely seen as necessary. But it looks as though the AKP will not be able to implement reforms without working with smaller parties.

The results of the Turkish elections will have implications not only on Turkey’s internal affairs, but also on Ankara’s foreign policy and relationship with Israel. 

Foreign policy and relations with Israel

Since 2002, the AKP has shifted the balance of Turkey’s foreign policy. This has had a negative impact on relations with Israel. During the period of the Cold War, Turkey was the key NATO ally in the Near East.  Possessing the largest standing army in the region, and situated at a key strategic point between the then-USSR and the Arabic-speaking world, Turkey was a vital lynchpin in the US-led strategic arrangement in the region.

After the end of the Cold War, Turkey sought a new role.  Throughout the 1990s, Ankara’s EU application was the main focus of its foreign policy. However, persistent problems in the accession process, including the reluctance on the part of France and Germany, has led to disillusionment on this matter in Turkey. 

Whilst EU accession remains a Turkish aspiration, the AKP has promoted a new orientation. The principal architect of this strategy is Turkey’s influential foreign minister, Ahmed Davutoglu. The approach is to position Turkey as a unique political, cultural and geostrategic bridge between the West and the Islamic world. This includes improving Turkey’s ties with all of its regional neighbours, including in the Arab world. 

A consequence of this strategy has been a cooling of Israel-Turkey relations. The relationship reached its peak at the end of the 1990s, when the two countries enjoyed close military and intelligence cooperation. However, the AKP’s regional strategy is not ultimately served by a comprehensive rupture between Ankara and Jerusalem. Until 2009, Turkey sought to build its popularity in the Arab world, whilst maintaining sufficiently close relations with Israel to enable it to act as a mediator. In 2008, Turkey indirectly mediated negotiations between Israel and Syria.

However, Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military operation to stop the firing of rockets from Gaza, brought this process to an end. Turkey’s angry response to the operation marked a significant downturn in Israel-Turkey relations. The AKP’s warm relations with Hamas, based on a related Islamist outlook, also soured relations between Israel and Turkey.

The Gaza flotilla incident of May 2010, in which nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed by Israeli soldiers, was triggered by the IHH, a Turkish Islamist NGO with links to the AKP.  The incident led to a nadir in Israel-Turkey relations, with Turkey withdrawing its ambassador from Israel. Turkey continues to demand an apology and compensation from Israel. Israel has so far been unwilling to apologise, blaming the incident on violence initiated by the IHH activists.

Israel would like to repair its relations with Turkey, a point reiterated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in reactions to news of the AKP’s victory on Monday. There is some hope among Israeli officials that with the elections behind them, the Turkish government may be more flexible in seeking a compromise to overcome the flotilla incident dispute. Overall, however, Turkey’s strained relations with Israel have served it well in terms of its popular appeal in the Arab world, and have played well domestically.  

The populist aspect of Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric was illustrated last week in a row between Erdogan and the Economist. In its leader article, the Economist encouraged Turkish citizens to vote against the AKP. The article claimed that Erdogan’s domestic political victories over the army and judiciary had indulged ‘his natural intolerance of criticism and fed his autocratic instincts,’ with a curtailment of press freedom and rise in corruption. Erdogan responded by accusing the Economist of being part of a ‘a global gang’ and taking orders from Israel. 

In the context of the political upheavals currently underway in the Arab world, Turkey now has to manoeuvre in a changed region in which good relations with the elites will no longer be enough. Rather, the perception of the Arab public must now be considered in building diplomatic strategy. This would seem to make an improvement in the atmospherics of the Israel-Turkey relationship even less likely following the AKP’s victory. 

Conclusion

The re-election of the AKP means that no substantial change in Israel-Turkey relations should be expected in the upcoming period.  Despite Turkey’s ambition to play a mediating role between Israel and the Arab world, this is unlikely to take precedence over the critical position towards Israel that generates legitimacy and popularity for the AKP domestically and in the region.  At the same time, there is likely to be relief in Jerusalem that the absence of a two-thirds majority in parliament will prevent the AKP from further cementing its power through sweeping constitutional reform.