Turkey, Israel Reset Ties But Pursue Rival Mediations in Russia-Ukraine War

As Turkey and Israel take their biggest step in years toward reviving strained relations, some analysts say the two regional powers prefer going it alone in another diplomatic effort — trying to mediate a peaceful resolution of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog in Ankara on Wednesday, calling it a “historic visit that will be a turning point in relations” that have been strained for more than a decade. Herzog, who holds a largely ceremonial role, is the most senior Israeli official to visit Turkey since the last visit by an Israeli prime minister in 2008.

Speaking alongside Herzog, Erdogan told reporters he and the Israeli president “exchanged views about events in Ukraine” and expressed hope that their meeting will create new opportunities for bilateral and regional cooperation. He did not elaborate.

Herzog expressed appreciation to Erdogan for inviting the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers to meet jointly with Turkey’s top diplomat in Antalya on Thursday. The planned meeting will be the highest-level dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv since Russia invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24.

“The war in Ukraine is a humanitarian disaster, which is shocking the whole world,” Herzog said. “We cannot remain indifferent to such human suffering, and I welcome any endeavor that will lead to the end of the bloodshed.”

Herzog said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the government also are “doing their utmost on this matter.” Regarding Turkey’s mediation effort, he said “I pray for positive results.”

Bennett flew to Moscow on March 5 for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the only foreign leader known to have made the journey after Russia began its invasion, which has isolated Putin from the West.

The Israeli prime minister’s mediation effort also has involved regular contact with Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz through phone calls and WhatsApp messages, U.S. news site Axios reported on Wednesday.

There are no indications that Bennett and Erdogan have coordinated those diplomatic efforts, according to several international security analysts contacted by VOA. They also said Turkey and Israel have a variety of motivations to pursue their mediation bids separately.

Erdogan has been offering to support dialogue to resolve Russia-Ukraine tensions since at least April 2021, when he hosted Zelenskyy for talks in Istanbul as Kyiv raised alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine’s border. The Turkish president later traveled to the Russian city of Sochi in September for talks with Putin.

Oxford University international relations scholar Samuel Ramani said Turkey began its mediation efforts last year as more of a messenger between Putin and Zelenksyy, but has now transitioned to more of a formal mediation role.

“Israel seems confined at this stage to being a messenger. So, Turkey is much further ahead in this regard, and that’s probably why Erdogan is not cooperating with Israel,” Ramani said.

Hanna Notte, a Berlin-based analyst for the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, said Erdogan also sees an opportunity as a Russia-Ukraine mediator to repair recent damage to Turkey’s relations with its Arab and Western partners and allies.

She said Turkey developed a reputation in some Arab states as a meddler in their affairs in recent years, while also incurring U.S. anger and sanctions for buying a Russian air defense system that Washington sees as undermining the NATO alliance of which Ankara is a member.

“If the Turks play a constructive role as a mediator and improve their international standing, I don’t see how that would be augmented by coordinating with the Israelis directly,” Notte said. “If anything, the Turks want to have the limelight for themselves rather than sharing it with another regional player,” she added.

Israel’s motivations for pursuing a solo mediation bid are different from Turkey’s, said Yaakov Amidror, an Israel-based analyst for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

One of the motives is idealistic, he said. “In Israel, we see this war as a big tragedy that should be stopped.”

Unlike Turkey, Israel also has relatively few conflicting security interests with Russia and sees that as an advantage in being trusted as a messenger between Russia and Ukraine, Amidror added.

Another factor inhibiting coordination of Israeli and Turkish mediation efforts is that the political leaders of the two sides have only just started rebuilding trust after years of tensions, said analyst Gallia Lindenstrauss of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. The two nations withdrew ambassadors from their respective embassies in 2018 and have not said when they will return.

Notte said she believes Israel and Turkey would only see a benefit to cooperation as mediators if they calculate that it would heighten the chance of a positive outcome.

“But I’m not very hopeful for any kind of international mediation because I don’t believe Russia has made a strategic decision to back away from its maximalist demands,” Notte said. “It’s not so much to do with the abilities of Turkey and Israel as mediators, as it is with the calculus right now in the Russian government.” 

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