Ankara, Turkey – Turkey’s fraught relationship with Israel could be on the mend, according to reports suggesting Ankara is to appoint the first ambassador to its Mediterranean counterpart in more than two and a half years.
News of the selection of a Jerusalem-educated appointee would mark the thawing of ties between the countries after years of antagonism and fiery rhetoric between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to a report last week by Al-Monitor quoting “well-placed sources”, Ankara has picked Ufuk Ulutas to lead efforts to build bridges with Israel. Ulutas currently heads the foreign ministry’s research centre but is not a career diplomat, having previously led a pro-government think-tank.
He studied Hebrew and Middle East politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, according to biographical details on the think-tank’s website.
Described as “very polished” and “very pro-Palestine” by sources quoted in the Al-Monitor report, Ulutas would face a tough task in repairing relations that have gone from bad to worse in recent years.
Strained ties under Erdogan’s government were exacerbated in 2010 when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla seeking to breach Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killing eight Turkish nationals and an American-Turkish activist, while another Turkish national later succumbed to his injuries.
Six years later, the countries restored ties in a reconciliation deal that saw them appoint ambassadors after Netanyahu had apologised for the attack and agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families.
However, the United States’ decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the harsh Israeli response to Palestinian street protests that followed led to another collapse in the relationship, with both sides cutting top-level diplomatic ties in May 2018 but retaining their embassies and consulates.
Among the diplomatic ups and downs, both Erdogan and Netanyahu engaged in periodic bouts of name-calling seemingly designed for domestic consumption.
Last year, Erdogan compared Israel’s Palestinian policy to the Holocaust, leading Netanyahu to accuse him of being someone who “slaughters Kurds in his country”.
News of the new ambassador came after reports the nations’ intelligence chiefs had met to pave the way for improved ties.
“They may have agreed in principle to a gradual normalisation so I would expect this rhetoric to stop and the leaders to stop communicating through the media,” a former senior Turkish diplomat told Al Jazeera.
However, Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said even the return of ambassadors would not reduce suspicion between the two sides, with Israel “less enthusiastic in trying to repair relations”.
She added: “Both leaders also benefit internally and externally from the rhetorical battles between them, hence, when the opportunity arises again, they are likely to use once more fiery rhetoric.”
Things were not always so traumatic. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognise the state of Israel in 1949 and throughout the post-war period the countries enjoyed warm relations as two non-Arab, Western-orientated powers in the region.
Turkish governments before 2002, when Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party came to power, generally fostered close ties, with widespread cooperation on defence, trade and tourism.
Erdogan visited Israel in 2005, offering to serve as a peace envoy over the occupation of Palestine, but Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-2009 soured links, with Turkey describing the incursion as “state-sponsored terrorism”.
Despite this, annual trade between the nations has hovered between $4.5bn and $6bn over the last eight years. The first 10 months of this year saw trade of more than $5bn, according to the Turkish government’s statistics agency.
The return of full diplomatic ties could only improve economic ties.
Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, said Erdogan’s self-assumed role as a representative of Sunni Muslims lay at the heart of his approach to Israel.
“For Erdogan, championing the Palestinian cause stems from his own beliefs about Turkey’s legitimacy as regional Muslim leader but also from the domestic and regional support he can generate each time he stands up publicly to Israel,” she told Al Jazeera.
Noting that the Turkish president’s anti-Israeli rhetoric often coincided with key political events at home, Hintz said defending Palestinians wins “support from other Muslim populations” while “defiantly confronting Israel wins him nationalist support at home and abroad”.
Despite this motivation, Erdogan is a “calculating pragmatist who can paint otherwise surprising shifts, such as the economics-driven rapprochement with Israel in 2016, as a win for Turkey,” she added.
Many observers view any ambassadorial restoration as a reaction to fresh external pressure on Turkey, as well as the country’s perilous economic situation.
The incoming presidency of Joe Biden in the US is likely to see Washington take a tougher stance on Turkey’s human rights record and its involvement in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus.
The past week has seen Europe and the US both agree to sanctions against Ankara; the former over its energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it has come up against EU members Greece and Cyprus, and the latter over last year’s deployment of Russian S-400 missiles.
“I think the decision to appoint a new ambassador to Israel has more to do with the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the former Turkish diplomat said.
In the confrontation over gas reserves, Israel and Egypt have sided against Turkey, which has been supported by the Tripoli-based government in divided Libya.
“For a long time, we have advocated the normalisation of ties not only with Israel but also Syria and Egypt. Turkey should not be isolated over gas reserves and maritime jurisdiction areas,” the former diplomat said.
Restoring ties with Israel could also be in “preparation for a new administration in Washington,” the ex-diplomat said, adding: “They’re preparing for better engagement with the EU and also with the Biden administration.”
However, even improved ties with Israel “will not change the reality of a deep crisis between Turkey and its Western partners,” which are focused on the S-400s and gas exploration, according to Lindenstrauss.
There has been no official confirmation of Ulutas’s appointment, leading to the suggestion he could be a replacement charge d’affaires, a lower diplomatic rank.
“Still, as relations were not officially downgraded in 2018, there is no formal hurdle for reinstating the ambassadors,” Lindenstrauss said.
One key point for Israel would be Turkey’s relationship with Hamas, with a number of senior commanders now living in Istanbul from where they have reportedly planned attacks.
“If Turkey adopts a non-comprising stance towards Hamas military operatives on its territory, that would be very positive from the perspective of Israel,” Lindenstrauss added.