Mutual Friends: Azerbaijan Seeks to Promote Reconciliation Between Israel and Turkey
Since Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize relations in September 2020, Israel has made a series of deals with other states in the region. Since then, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have also normalized their relations with the region’s only majority-Jewish state. Now, reports have emerged that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with encouragement from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, might seek to mend his country’s relations with Israel. On a call between the Azerbaijani and Turkish presidents, the former raised the possibility of mediating between the two parties, and the Azerbaijani foreign minister has relayed the same message to Israel.
Under President Erdogan’s AKP, relations with Israel have deteriorated considerably. They reached their nadir following the 2010 Gaza Flotilla Incident, in which Turkish ships attempted to run an Israeli blockade of Gaza. The result was Turkey expelling Israel’s ambassador. Although attempts have been made to ease tensions between the two countries, these efforts have had minimal success.
This time, however, the outcome could be different. Turkey’s most steadfast ally, Azerbaijan, has put its own relationship with Israel front-and-center in its attempt to improve ties between its partners. Azerbaijan, a majority, Shi’a Muslim country, has had strong, positive relations with Israel since its re-emergence as an independent state in 1991. The two countries have had full, warm diplomatic relations since Azerbaijan regained its independence. Azerbaijan has been a leading supplier of crude oil for Israel. Azerbaijan and Israel have strong commercial relations and the latter has provided welcome technical and development aid, for example in developing Azerbaijan’s agriculture. Azerbaijan has also benefited over the years in being able to buy Israeli military equipment. The positive relationship Azerbaijan and Israel have fostered in recent years could play a key role as President Aliyev seeks to promote reconciliation between Turkey and Israel.
The United States should closely follow, and possibly engage with, Baku’s attempt to improve diplomatic relations between its two partners. Turkey is a critical NATO ally of the United States and home to multiple American military bases. Bringing about positive Turkish relations with Israel, the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East, would be an important step towards promoting stability in the region. Both countries, like the United States, are wary of increasing Iranian adventurism, and could benefit economically from increased collaboration. Furthermore, U. S. involvement could prove beneficial in attempts to promote energy connectivity between Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields and Europe via Turkey’s existing infrastructure in Ceyhan. The United States would be a critical backer in a possible interconnector linking Israeli gas fields with the Southern Gas Corridor via Ceyhan.
Still, there are likely to be sticking points to any improvement in Israel-Turkey relations. Israel is on good terms with both Cyprus and Greece, with which it has agreed to split the Tamar, Leviathan, and Aphrodite natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Their partnership in the development of these fields has fostered close ties among the three and could make Israel wary of increased engagement with Turkey. Erdogan also has a history of making bellicose statements vis-à-vis Israel, such as his October 2020 claim that “Jerusalem is ours.” Azerbaijan will have to overcome these diplomatic and rhetorical stumbling blocks if it is to achieve its mission of bringing its partners back together.
While reconciliation may be difficult, that is not to say it will be impossible. The year 2020 has been a revolutionary year for Israel’s relations with the rest of the Middle East. In a year when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly met with deeply conservative Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a turnaround in Israel-Turkey relations seems a lot less unlikely. With coaxing from Azerbaijan as a mediator and encouragement from the United States, Turkey and Israel could get their relationship back on track.