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Why it's no longer the chummy 1990s for Turkey, Israel

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are working hard to repair relations between Turkey and Israel. They deserve credit for their efforts. But much has changed for both countries since they cooperated in the 1990s, and progress toward rapprochement will likely be slow.

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In the late 1990s, Turkish leaders also saw Israel as an important vehicle for obtaining sophisticated military technology. Today, Turkey’s procurement options have considerably expanded. It no longer depends heavily on Israel for obtaining state-of-the-art arms. Ankara is developing its own defense industry and has entered into a number of joint-production cooperation deals, such as with South Korea to produce main battle tanks.

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Things have changed on the Israeli side, too. A decade ago, many Israelis saw Turkey as a valuable mediator in Israel’s troubled relations with the Arab world. However, Erdogan’s strident support of the Palestinian cause, his rhetoric branding Zionism as a “crime against humanity,” and his blistering criticism of what he calls Israel’s siege of Gaza have left Israeli leaders wary and mistrustful.

Israeli officials no longer regard Turkey as an honest broker but as an ardent advocate of the Palestinian cause. In Israeli eyes, this undermines Ankara’s ability to act as an intermediary in the Arab-Israeli conflict and a bridge to the wider Muslim world.

Turkey and Israel have other deep-seated differences: over Iran, Israel’s own nuclear program, and the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These strains put firm limits on the degree of rapprochement likely to occur between Turkey and Israel – even if relations return to normal.

So nobody should expect a return to the halcyon, late-1990s period of defense cooperation. Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu’s apology for the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident is important. It does not guarantee better Turkish-Israeli relations, but it does remove a major obstacle to them. And it will make it easier for Turkey to win approval of several defense items currently blocked in Congress over the rift in relations with Israel.

For Israel, the apology is an important step toward reducing Jerusalem's diplomatic isolation and restoring more cordial ties to Washington, which were strained during Obama’s first term. Israel can ill afford to alienate the United States at a time when instability and unrest in the Middle East are on the rise. Indeed, the deteriorating situation in Syria, which borders Israel and Turkey, appears to have been one of the main catalysts for the apology.

Finally, Netanyahu's apology opens important prospects for closer energy cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean, especially regarding natural gas. Turkish officials have expressed an interest in developing an undersea pipeline with Israel to link the Jewish state to the European market via Turkey.

It’s a win-win on smaller issues, even while the larger ones remain hanging. Such progress is a welcome rarity in the Middle East.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.


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