Relations between Israel and Turkey took another blow Friday after pro-Palestine demonstrators attacked the Israeli embassy in Istanbul. (On Thursday, protesters also targeted the Israeli ambassador’s residence in Ankara, where they draped Palestinian flags and smashed windows.) In response, and despite efforts by Turkish security forces to disperse demonstrators, Israel has reduced its diplomatic presence in Turkey to a minimum.
Israel’s withdrawal of many of its diplomats and their families comes as it launches a ground offensive on Gaza after ten days of air strikes – a campaign that had Ankara warning, as early as last week, that cordial relations would sour as a result. Israeli officials are charging that Turkey violated diplomatic relations and that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan himself – an outspoken critic of the Gaza offensive — incited the anti-Israel protests; in turn, Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned, “there will be much more serious consequences if [Israel] does not stop its aggressiveness and the escalation of incidents.”
The verbal sparring heralds a serious freeze in diplomatic relations and the possible loss of Israel’s strongest ally in the region. Though, the neighboring countries’ uneasy relationship has long been colored by Turkey’s favorable stance towards Palestine. An Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla in 2010 seriously damaged relations, which have slowly been on the mend since last year’s mediation efforts by the United States. Now, diplomacy is not the only thing on the line; commercial ties are at stake as well, notably a long-anticipated deal to build a gas pipeline between the two countries. Turkish opposition to the deal would complicate Israel’s hopes to find a new (and profitable) outlet for its natural gas exports.
Here, Ankara has room to boost its international profile. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has held talks with international leaders like UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a diplomatic campaign to end the Gaza offensive; he has also reached out to the U.N. Security Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
However, for Erdogan at least, domestic politics may prove the dominant factor shaping ties with Israel. Erdogan has historically privileged his conservative, Sunni Muslim support base at the expense of secular, middle class voters, not to mention Turkey’s international status. So it’s no surprise that he is ramping up the anti-Israel rhetoric so popular among his key voters in the final weeks preceding presidential elections in August. If Erdogan nabs the presidency as expected, he could be forced to cool his fighting words amid pressure from Western allies. Though, ever the bellicose leader, Erdogan may not back down so easily. On Friday, the Turkish premier stated, “I do not envision any progress [in ties] with Israel as long as I am in charge.”