Opinion |

Israel Needs a Reset With Turkey to Contain Iran

Turkey needs U.S.-friendly allies. And Israel needs a solid regional front against Iran. Paying a modest 'price' to a needy Erdogan could gain Israel a significant strategic advantage

Nicholas Saidel
Nicholas Saidel
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the AKP provincial congress in Istanbul, Turkey last year
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the AKP provincial congress in Istanbul, Turkey last year.Credit: MURAD SEZER/ REUTERS
Nicholas Saidel
Nicholas Saidel

As the Middle East splits into three power axes – Turkey, Iran, and Israel and its Arab partners – this is an opportunity for Israel to close ranks against Iran. But to do so properly, it needs Turkey. And the time is now ripe for Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, for a myriad of reasons.

First, while Turkey and Iran are not enemies, emerging policy incongruencies in the Caucasus, Iraq, and Syria have considerably chilled bilateral relations.

Secondly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already sending signals to Israel that he wants to rekindle ties with the Jewish state. Israel would have leverage should it respond to Turkish overtures, which come from a point of weakness, in large measure due to America’s cold posture towards Erdogan under President Joe Biden’s administration.

Thirdly, reestablishing robust diplomatic ties now would further isolate Iran as it jockeys to maximize its position ahead of negotiations regarding its nuclear file. A more united regional front would further cast Iran as a destabilizing pariah state.

Finally, Israel could achieve ancillary national security objectives here: namely, that Turkey rein in support for Hamas; that Turkey deescalate tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where lucrative natural gas findings are in jeopardy due to Turkish belligerence, and that Turkey reverse policies that have prevented Israel’s further integration with NATO.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh shakes hands with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul last year.Credit: Presidential Press Service via AP

Though Erdogan is indicating his willingness to normalize and has appointed an ambassador to Israel after a two-year absence, so far, the Jewish state has unflinchingly rejected those overtures, notwithstanding assessments by Israeli intelligence and military brass that Turkey is now an emerging threat.

Israel cites Erdogan’s continued allowance of Hamas militants on its soil as a red line. Hosting Hamas is understandably problematic as are concerns about possible Turkish opportunism and insincerity given Erdogan’s multitudinous tirades against Israel and Turkey’s pliable relationship with Iran.

But Israel’s current priority is Iran, its nuclear and precision missile program, and its primary auxiliary force in Hezbollah.

If Israel’s message to the U.S. and the international community is that it will act unilaterally against Iran, then actively engaging Turkey without President Biden moving first is aligned with such messaging. While strategic patience may be appealing to the U.S., Israel should seize the mood of the Abraham Accords to normalize with Turkey, as this window of opportunity may close given the ever-shifting political landscape of the Middle East.

Normalization may require some modest reciprocation in return for Israeli demands. Given the lack of Turkish leverage, demands in this regard would probably neither be prohibitive nor outweigh the likely strategic advantage gained to Israel.

Revisiting talks regarding energy cooperation – cooperation that will not disrupt Israel’s existing partnerships in the eastern Mediterranean – and exploring humanitarian initiatives to improve life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, an issue of special concern for Erdogan and his political base back home, would likely suffice.

Given its unique historical role and current hard power projection in the region, Turkey will have an independent Middle East policy for the foreseeable future.

In this Nov. 22, 2017 file photo, Turkey's President Erdogan, right, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, center, and Iran's President Rouhani pose for the media members in Sochi, RussiaCredit: Kayhan Ozer/Pool via AP, File

It is far-fetched to assume Turkey would ever subordinate its interests to that of the "Israeli-Gulf" axis or dedicate military assets to defending this axis against Iran. Iran is not a direct threat to Turkey, and as bordering states with longstanding ties, the two countries are strong partners in trade and in discrete areas of security such as countering Kurdish separatist movements.

Having said that, recent events demonstrate a more confrontational dynamic between Turkey and Iran that can be exploited.

In 2020, Turkey’s military killed scores of Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed fighters in Syria’s Idlib province, the Syrian rebel enclave and military redoubt that stands in opposition to the Syrian regime and its Iranian sponsor.

More recently, affiliated Iranian-backed Iraqi militias threatened Turkey for its perceived occupation of Iraqi territory and envoys from both Iran and Turkey were summoned to their respective offices regarding policy divergences now developing in Iraqi Kurdistan. These Iranian-backed militias, which Israel infrequently attacks along the Syrian border, are cooperating with Turkey’s outlawed terrorist enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, known as the PKK.

Still from video released by the Azerbaijan Defense Ministry: a UAV flies over an Azerbaijani attack on Armenian artillery during fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Oct. 1, 2020.Credit: ,AP

Moreover, Turkey and Iran sat on opposing sides to the 2020 Nagarno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the latter an ally of Iran. Turkey, and notably, Israeli support to Azerbaijan, mainly in the form of drone assistance, rendered this war a one-sided affair in favor of Azerbaijan.

Turkey’s increased influence in the Caucasus is troubling for Iran as the flames of Azeri separatism in Iran’s north was stoked by the war between their co-Turkic brethren in Azerbaijan – a Shi’a dominant but relatively secular country that has ties to both Israel and Turkey and an unsteady relationship with Iran. Azerbaijan has offered to mediate talks between Israel and Turkey to assist in normalization efforts.

Normalization could foment a shift in Turkey, a military powerhouse, so that it leans towards the "Israel-Gulf" axis as it applies to the burgeoning regional security architecture taking shape as America recedes from the Middle East. Israel should proceed cautiously, with the knowledge that Turkey needs allies friendly to the U.S. to curry favor with President Biden and that it continues to support the Muslim Brotherhood and offshoots such as Hamas.

Nonetheless, given the unacceptable risk Iran poses to Israel, the shared interest between Turkey and Israel in containing Iran, and the significant issues that can be resolved to Israel’s benefit through normalization, it would behoove the Jewish State to explore renewing relations, and soon, with its erstwhile ally.

Nicholas Saidel is the Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR). Twitter: @nicksaidel

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