International Relations
Israel-Turkey Relations Are Not Only About Erdoğan and Netanyahu

Turkey & Israel CSO
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation

The final days of 2020 raised hopes that Israel and Turkey may be on their way to improve ties, despite policy differences and lack of trust. “Turkey wants better ties with Israel”, said Turkey’s President Erdoğan, raising speculations that the countries may send back ambassadors to each other’s capitals before too long. 

This will be a positive development, but Israelis and Turks should not let the fate of their countries’ relations be dependent only on their leaders’ will. After all, Erdoğan and Netanyahu already agreed in 2016 to exchange ambassadors (after 5 years of lower diplomatic representation due to the flotilla incident), but that agreement held water for only two years. 

Turkey and Israel enjoy continuous diplomatic relations since 1949. These relations had, and still have, many ups and downs. But, overall, they have proven to be resilient. The two countries managed to overcome periods of crises and knew how to adapt their ties to changing realities. This long duration of continuous ties enabled, along the years, interaction and cooperation between multiple segments of the Israeli and Turkish societies. 

While the political leaders are the ones setting the tone in the bilateral relations, Israel-Turkey ties go beyond them, and are not dependent only on how the heads of states relate to each other. Tourism, business cooperation, sport and cultural events, academic exchange are all examples for channels through which a multi-faceted and resilient Israel-Turkey relationship has evolved. Within this scope, civil society is an important actor. 

The modern diplomacy of the 21st century enables easier cross-border communication and cooperation between non-governmental organizations, and opens a broader space for civil society to make policy impact and advance social change. Israel and Turkey, despite their disagreements, share similar challenges that civil society organizations can work together to confront. These could be global issues, like climate change; regional issues, like resolving conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean; and domestic issues, like the need to strengthen democracy and liberalism, and to smooth tensions between religion and state. 

Cooperation between Israeli and Turkish civil society organizations can increase their capacity to tackle these issues, serve as a platform to exchange best practices, lead to innovative joint endeavors, broaden ties between like-minded professionals in both countries, and improve mutual public perceptions. This may also have a positive spill-over effect on official relations. As cooperation among societies increases, Israel-Turkey relations will become less dependent on the politicians. 

The leaders, in turn, may feel more at ease to seek paths to improve ties, despite the existing political differences, if they sense that this is in line with public sentiments. For example, in October 2020, a Mitvim Institute poll showed that 56 percent of Israelis want their country to try and improve ties with Turkey, while only 32 percent do not. This finding contradicts the negative political discourse against Turkey in Israel, and may encourage those politicians who see value in improving ties to speak up.

In light of current realities, there are several channels in which civil society cooperation between Israel and Turkey can be intensified: 

(1) The Covid-19 crisis creates new needs and opens new opportunities for cooperation in fields related to public health (in which Israel and Turkey did not cooperate much in the past), economy and welfare. For example, in April 2020, Turkey sent medical equipment to Israel as a humanitarian step to confront the pandemic; 

(2) The transition to online conferencing during the pandemic, enables think tanks and universities from both countries to increase academic and policy exchanges between scholars and experts. It also allows for more easier participation of Israelis and Turks living abroad in bilateral dialogue processes; 

(3) The growing global discourse about multilateralism and international cooperation can enable Israelis and Turks to work together in multinational platforms, on issues of mutual interest, such as global warming and women rights; 

(4) The rising significance of municipalities and the fact that major cities in both countries are led by liberal mayors, creates opportunities for cooperation between local leaderships and for formulating twin cities partnerships; 

(5) Mounting challenges to democracy can incentivize pro-democracy organizations from both countries to exchange best practices and develop joint endeavors, e.g. in the fields of media, civil society, and human rights; 

(6) The changing regional landscape in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean increases the need for Israeli and Turkey experts to exchange views on developments, identify opportunities, and work together to promote better bilateral Israel-Turkey relations and regional conflict resolution.

This set of opportunities includes new topics for cooperation and new tools for engagement. It creates an opportunity to bring new organizations from Israel and Turkey to cooperate with each other, and to broaden and deepen the cooperation that already exists. This is not a role for the governments to play. Governments should signal that they see value in civil society cooperation and should refrain from adding hurdles that will make cooperation more difficult. 

It is up to civil society to highlight the need for increased cooperation between citizens and non-state actors, to emphasize the benefits that it can bring to both sides, and to lead the way. For that to happen, a coordinating body, such as the Turkey-Israel Civil Society Forum, has a central role to play, much like the Israel-Turkey Business Council assists business cooperation between the two countries to flourish.

Israelis and Turks who care about the relationship between the two countries and who yearn for better ties, do not have to wait for their leaders to change paths and reconcile. They can identify an issue they care about, reach out to partners in the other country, and take joint action. There are already many partnerships taking place between citizens from both countries, and there is plenty of room for more. Lets seize the new opportunities together.

Dr. Nimrod Goren is Founder and Head of Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a Lecturer for Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This article is based on joint deliberations with Dr. Salih Bıçakcı  from Turkey, as part of the Turkey-Israel Civil Society Forum, and was also published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.