Turkey and Israel have maintained some form of diplomatic relations since Turkey recognized the Jewish State in 1949. Turkey’s first diplomatic mission in Israel was officially inaugurated on January 7, 1950, and the first Turkish Chief of Mission, Seyfullah Esin, presented his credentials to Chaim Weizmann, President of Israel. However, the Turkish Legation was downgraded to the level of “Charge d’Affaires” after the Suez Crisis in 1956.
In 1958, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes met secretly to discuss a “peripheral pact” which included public-relations campaigns, exchange of intelligence information and military support. Possibly as a result of these meeting, the Turkish mission in Tel Aviv was upgraded back to the level of “Legation” in July 1963.
In 1967, Turkey joined the Arab condemnation of Israel after the Six-Day War and called for Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, but it abstained from voting in favor of a clause referring to Israel as an “aggressor state.” At a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Rabat, Morocco, Turkey opposed a resolution calling for severing diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Turkish Legation in Israel was further upgraded to the level of “Embassy” in January 1980. In March 1992, the mutual diplomatic relations were raised once again to the Ambassadorial level and a Turkish Ambassador presented his credentials to Israeli President Chaim Herzog in Tel-Aviv.
In 2005, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Israel offering to serve as a Middle East peace mediator and looking to build trade and military ties with the Jewish State. Erdoğan met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav and also laid a wreath at Yad Vashem. Erdoğan told Sharon that his Justice and Development Party regarded anti-Semitism as “a crime against humanity.”
In early 2006, the Israeli Foreign Ministry described its country’s relations with Turkey as “perfect.” In November 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, and addressed the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
Relations between the two nations began to strain following Turkey’s condemnation of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009. In October 2009, Turkey barred Israel from participating in the joint Anatolian Eagle military exercise, to which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying Turkey could no longer work as a peace mediator, stating “Turkey can’t be [an] honest broker”, between Syria and Israel.
In early 2009, Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel’s conduct in Gaza at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland. In front of Israeli President Peres, Erdoğan said: “I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. You killed people. And I think that it is very wrong.”
Relations between the countries further soured following the Gaza Flotilla Incident of May 2010, when eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed by Israeli troops while aboard a convoy attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Erdoğan described the raid as “state terrorism” and Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador from Israel and summoned the Israeli ambassador to demand an explanation. The Turkish Foreign Ministry stated that the incident could lead to irreparable consequences in bilateral relations.
On September 2, 2011, Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel and suspended military cooperation after the UN released its report on the flotilla incident. Turkey demanded an Israeli apology and compensation for the dead; Israel refused. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Turkey’s opposition leader, condemned the downgrade in relations with Israel while Faruk Logoglu, a deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, also criticized Erdoğan for the diplomatic severing of ties.
Although Turkish and Israeli intelligence agencies have been working together since 1958, strategic intelligence cooperation came to prominence between Turkey and Israel in the early 1990’s, with signed agreements between the Mossad and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT). While carrying out missions in neighboring countries, the Mossad would use Turkey as a buffer zone to ensure their safety and security while returning from or travelling to their objectives. Pursuant to these agreements, Mossad members were able to enter and leave Turkey with their spy equipment without going through border crossings and security procedures, and avoided passport and customs checks as well.
This security and intelligence relationship has been under high stress since October 2012, when it was revealed that Turkey had leaked to Iran the names of 10 Iranian spies working for Israel. These Iranian spies would use Turkish territory as a meeting place with their Mossad “handlers.” If these allegations are true, that means that Turkey blew the cover of the Iranian spies and betrayed the strategic trust of Israel, violating the unwritten rules of international intelligence conduct and relations.
Following these events as well as the Gaza Flotilla incident in May 2010, Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan is attempting to cancel agreements with the Mossad that allow its agents to operate freely on Turkish soil. The Israeli intelligence agencies were upset because Turkey has been a strategic ally for Israeli operations in the region for a long time.
In March 2013, during a speech at a United Nations event, Erdoğan described Zionism as “a crime against humanity” saying, “It is necessary that we must consider—just like Zionism, or anti-Semitism, or fascism—Islamophobia.”
Improving of Relations
Following U.S. pressure on both sides, reconciliation between Israel and Turkey took off in early 2013. In March 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the Gaza Flotilla incident and an official statement by the Israeli government said that Netanyahu expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral relations and described the flotilla incident as unintentional, regretful and involving "operational errors". Mr. Erdogan later issued a statement where he accepted the apology on behalf of the Turkish people.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented on the recent improvement of relations between Turkey and Israel in December 2015, stating that, “this normalization process has a lot to offer to us, to Israel, to Palestine and also to the region... The region needs this.” Turkey-Israel relations had been strained since the 2010 Gaza Flotilla Incident, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.
Turkish citizens celebrated Chanukah in a public display for the first time, on December 14, 2015. Turkish Jews lit a large menorah in Istanbul’s historical Ortakoy Square, and traditional Hanukkah blessings were recited via loudspeaker. The head of Turkey's Jewish community, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, spoke at the event, which was attended by many government officials. In a statement released on December 7, Turkey's President Erdogan commented, “I wish peace, happiness and welfare to all Jews, primarily Turkey’s Jewish citizens who are an inseparable part of our society, on the occasion of Hanukkah.”
In December 2015, Turkey and Israel reached “understandings” aimed at normalizing ties between the two countries, following days of secret meetings in Switzerland. If signed, under the terms of the agreement Israel will compensate the families of the victims of the Gaza Flotilla Incident to the tune of $20 million, and begin discussions with Turkey cocerning oil exports. In the days following the announcement of a potential agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset that “There are ongoing talks with Turkey, but there are no understandings, and we're not there yet.”
Outstanding issues included Hamas activities within Turkey, and the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon complicated reconciliation negotiations with Turkey in mid-February 2016, when he demanded that any reconciliation agreement include the return of two Israeli soldiers bodies currently being held in Gaza by Hamas. Ya’alon was reportedly the only minister who expressed doubts about Israeli-Turkish reconciliation.
Israeli officials also demanded that Turkey take steps to shut down the Hamas headquarters in Istanbul before any final agreement is signed. To read the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Center's analysis on Turkey/Israel reconciliation, released in March 2016, please click here. A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement released on April 8, 2016, said Turkey and Israel had made much progress on normalizing relations, and an official agreement will be signed at the next meeting between the two countries.
Israeli and Texan owners of the Leviathan natural gas field entered into a contract with Turkish Edeltech group and Zorlu Energi to sell them $1.3 billion in oil over the next 18 years. Edeltech and Zorlu announced plans to build two new processing plants in Israel to handle the sale.
A terrorist attack in Istanbul killed three Israeli citizens with a tour group on March 19, 2016, prompting the Counter-Terrorism bureau of Prime Minister Netanyahu's office to recommend that Israelis avoid visiting the country until further notice. Surveilance cameras revealed that the terrorist “stalked” the Israeli tour group during the hours leading up to the attack. Israeli President Rueven Rivlin spoke via phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the attack, thanking Erdogan for the condolence letter written on behalf of the three Israelis killed. During the conversation the two leaders stressed their need to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. The Prime Minister's office issued a second warning on March 28, 2016, urging Israelis currently in Turkey to leave as soon as they can and again stressing it is highly recommended for Israelis to hold off on travel to Turkey, due to the security situation.
A group of militants identifying with the Islamic State were arrested in Gaziantep, Turkey, during late March 2016. The six individuals divulged to police that an “imminent” attack was being planned against Istanbul's Synagogue in Beyoglu, which has a school and community center attached. Turkish police confirmed that this was more than a credible threat, it was an active plot. To address the threat Turkish police increased security at the synagogue as well as other Jewish establishments.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization told officials in Jerusalem on May 3, 2016, that they may officially open offices in the organization's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. This was made possible after NATO member Turkey rescinded their veto they had imposed on Israeli activity within the organization in 2005, following the Gaza Flotilla incident. Turkey’s veto prevented Israel from moving forward and gaining representation at NATO, and also from participating in NATO joint exercises. The decision to remove the veto and allow Israel to open an office at NATO headquarters was accepted as a consequence of warming relations between Israel and Turkey.
On June 26, 2016, Turkey and Israel announced that they had officially reached a reconciliation agreement, ending six years of animosity between them. Per the agreement, Israel will pay $20 million in compensation to the families of the victims of the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident, and Turkey will once again be able to send aid and supplies to the Gaza Strip. A new power station, as well as a water desalination plant and hospital will also be built by Turkey in Gaza according to the agreement. On July 1, 2016, the Panamanian cargo ship Lady Leyla left the Port of Mersin in Turkey, loaded with 11,000 tons of humanitarian aid and supplies bound for the Gaza Strip. Food staples such as rice, flower, sugar, and wheat were loaded on the ship, as well as blankets, medical supplies, and toys for children. The Turkish Parliament approved this reconciliation agreement on August 20, 2016, and President Erdogan signed a bill on August 30 giving the go-ahead for implementation.
A group of Turkish businessmen, headed by the energy billionaire Ahmet Zorlu representing the Zorlu group, travelled to Israel to drum up business following news of the reconciliation deal. The Zorlu group is already involved in the Israel energy sector, holding a 25% stake in the Dorad gas-fired generation plant as a partner of Israeli company Edeltech. In a meeting with Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Zorlu made it clear that Turkey was interested in purchasing oil from Israel, as well as increasing energy cooperation in other ways.
On September 21, 2016, a Turkish man brandishing a 12-inch knife approached security guards at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, shouting that he had a bomb and acting erratically. The man was shot in the leg by embassy security personnel and taken into custody.
Erdogan appointed Mekin Mustafa Kemal Okem to be Turkey's new Ambassador to Israel in November 2016. Okem had previously worked at Turkish embassies in London and Riyadh, and upon his appointment was serving as the Turkish Prime Minister’s advisor on foreign affairs. On the day of this announcement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry nominated Eithan Na’eh to be the new Israeli Ambassador to Turkey. Okem arrived in Israel on December 12, 2016, and was sworn in officially as Turkey’s new Ambassador to Israel.
The Turkish aid ship Aqua Stella docked at Israel's Ashdod port in early June 2017, carrying tons of aid and other supplies destined for the Palestinian territories. During the second week of July 2017, the aid packages were handed out to 29,000 Palestinian families. Spokesmen for the Turkish Coordination and Cooperation Agency (TIKA) in Gaza, stated that the aid included 50,000 packages of food, 5,000 tons of flour, 100 tons of biscuits and cakes, 50,000 clothing items, and over 18,000 toys for children.
Turkey and Hamas
According to a report by James Rothwell, Turkey is granting citizenship to members of Hamas. A source told the The Telegraph, “The Turkish Government gave in to pressure by Hamas to grant citizenship to its operatives, thereby allowing them to travel more freely, endangering other countries that have listed Hamas as a terror group.”
The story noted that “Turkish passport holders are entitled to visa-free travel to Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Serbia, among other countries” and hopes to secure similar rights to enter EU countries. This allows them greater opportunity to threaten Israelis in other parts of the world.
The Telegraph also disclosed that Hamas operatives in Istanbul were planning attacks, including an assassination plot against the mayor of Jerusalem conceived by Zacharia Najib, one of the men given Turkish citizenship.
Most of the Hamas operatives in Turkey were released as part of the deal to secure the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011. Israel has been upset by Turkish support for Hamas and Erdogan’s willingness to allow these men to live and make plans to attack Israel from Turkey.
Erdogan Seeks an Empire
Erdoğan views himself “as the sultan of a resurgent empire, the leader of a modern and powerful Turkish nation, and an Islamic leader,” according to Yossi Kuperwasser and Lenny Ben-David. He wishes to “return to the Ottoman Empire’s glory days” and serve as the “protector of Muslims against the plots of local and regional enemies (such as the Turkish dissident leader Fethullah Gülen, pragmatic Muslims led by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia), and foreign foes (Greece, Israel, Europe, and the United States).”
Turkey has also grown increasingly interventionist as it seeks to “restrain the Kurds and strengthen radical Islamic forces.” Turkey has sent troops to Syria, Libya, and Qatar. Turkey’s relations with Iran undercuts American sanctions and Erdoğan decision to acquire a Russian anti-aircraft missile system over U.S. objections roiled NATO and provoked President Trump to cancel a deal to supply F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to Turkey.
Though still maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel to maintain beneficial economic ties and avoid antagonizing the United States, Erdogan has been a vocal critic of the Israeli government. Turkey is also in a multinational contest for control over gas reserves in the Mediterranean and hopes to prevent Israel from building a pipeline from Israel to Europe. As part of his effort to assume leadership of the Islamic world, Erdogan also seeks to gain influence in Jerusalem and supplant Jordan and Saudi Arabia as Muslim guardians of the Temple Mount.
“Israel is perceived by Erdoğan as a powerful rival that threatens Turkish and Islamic interests and promotes an ideology opposite to that of Turkey,” Kuperwasser and Ben-David note. “This can be seen, among other things, through Israel joining the pragmatic Sunni camp in the region, led by the Emirates.”
Erdoğan provoked outrage in Israel when he opened the Turkish parliament’s session in October 2020 by saying of Jerusalem, “In this city, which we had to leave in tears during the First World War, it is still possible to come across traces of the Ottoman resistance. So Jerusalem is our city, a city from us.”
He further irritated Israelis by adding, “we consider it an honor on behalf of our country and nation to express the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people on every platform, with whom we have lived for centuries.”
A Possible Thaw
At the end of 2020 and the start of 2021, there were indications that Turkey was interested in restoring ties with Israel. On December 25, 2020, Erdogan said Turkey would like to have better ties with Israel and acknowledged that the two countries’ intelligence services continued to cooperate. He said the obstacle was Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, which he called “unacceptable.”
In August 2020, Israel objected to Turkey giving passports to members of Hamas in Istanbul, which it described as “a very unfriendly step.” In January 2021, Israel declared that relations could not be improved unless Turkey expels members of Hamas now living in the country and using it as a base for directing terrorist activities in Gaza and the West Bank, recruiting Palestinians to become terrorists, and transferring funds to Hamas.
Yossi Melman, “Turkish Betrayal,” Jerusalem Post, (October 29, 2013);
“Reconciliation pact struck with Turkey: Israel,” Yahoo News, (December 17, 2015);
Barak Ravid, ”Netanyahu: Reconciliation With Turkey Hampered Over Hamas’ Activities and Gaza Blockade,” Haaretz, (December 22, 2015);
Tova Cohen, ”Israel’s Leviathan Partners Sell Gas to Turkish Energy Groups in $1.3b Deal,” Haaretz, (February 1, 2016);
Barak Ravid, ”Ya’alon Demands Return of Soldiers’ Bodies From Gaza as Part of Any Israel-Turkey Reconciliation Deal,” Haaretz, (February 10, 2016);
Herb Keinon, ”After Istanbul bombing, Israel recommends citizens to avoid visiting Turkey,” Jerusalem Post, (March 20, 2016);
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Sam Kiley, IS Planning ‘Imminent’ Attack On Jewish Schools,” Sky News, (March 29, 2016);
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Nour Abu Aisha, “Turkish aid distributed to poor families in Gaza,” Anadolu Agency, (July 16, 2017);
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Yossi Kuperwasser and Lenny Ben-David, “Turkish Hyper-Activity Reverberates Throughout the Middle East,” JCPA, (September 10, 2020);
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Itamar Eichner, “Israel to Turkey: Relations only in exchange for Shuttering Hamas' activities in Istanbul,” Ynet, (January 18, 2021).