A U-Turn in Israeli-Turkish Relations: The Fall of Ikhwanism and the Rise of the Abraham Accords

This issue of Turkeyscope focuses on Israeli-Turkish relations. Dr. Gökhan Çınkara explains the current decline of Ikhwanism and the rise of the Abraham Accords and its possible impact on the Israeli-Turkish relations.

Israeli and Turkish Flags during the Israeli President's visit in Turkey
Israeli and Turkish Flags during the Israeli President's visit in Turkey. Haim Zach/Government Press Office (Israel), via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0].


After the failed 2016 normalization agreement between Israel and Turkey,[1] a new diplomatic rapprochement began recently, which was marked by the visit of Israel’s President Isaac Herzog to Ankara in early March. The sincere messages of friendship that the leaders exchanged with each other implied that any problems or disagreements between the two countries were not structural or institutional. These messages indicate that the main dynamic behind Turkey's desire to restore relations is its insistence on overcoming its conjunctural problems with Israel. However, it should be added that there are some external factors that go beyond the institutional dimension of bilateral diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel.[2] The trajectory of these factors will determine the future in terms of how far the relationship between the two countries will deepen.

The New Regional Balance After the Arab Spring

The transformation of social identities after the Arab Spring is a critical issue. The most practical way of defining the Arab Spring is a popular reaction against the concentration of economic and bureaucratic resources in the hands of the one-man regimes that were established after the independence processes. Such regimes evolved into nation-states, and ended up being manipulated and monopolized by the elites following the rise of modern nationalism. Consequently, these developments and surge of Ikhwanism – the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood – pushed the Middle Eastern monarchies and Israel to form a common front against this new phenomenon. As the new order created by the Arab Spring collapsed in the Middle East, it was replaced by a new diplomatic initiative (also known as Abraham Accords) orchestrated by President Donald J. Trump and adopted by Israel and the Gulf countries. The main objective of this initiative, led by Israel and the Gulf, was the diplomatic isolation of Iran and its containment by military means. This development is the harbinger of many new developments and/or structural transformations throughout the region.

There is a strong tendency among the Gulf elites, and in part in their societies, to separate the case for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the politics surrounding diplomatic relations with Israel. The onset of the Abraham Accords also heralds a transformation in the value systems of the Gulf elites. The evolution in ethos emphasizes national identity. Yet it is now clearly understood that pure national interests, not religious and ethnic obligations, determine the formulation of diplomatic policies. Not only do identities and transnational institutional engagements prevent nationalization in the social structure, but they also lead to the dissolution of the ability of the state to act independently. It is possible to say that the diplomatic process with Israel has intensified by leaving this path of each state pursuing its own interests. For this reason, it should be underlined that the determining factor in Turkey's relations with Israel should be examined through the lens of newly formed national identities. It can be said that Turkey's institutional and personal avoidance of the Ikhwanist ideas, as a transnational movement that can undermine its national identity, may facilitate Turkish integration into the Abraham Accords axis.

The New Directions in Turkey's Foreign Policy

We can summarize the two main features of the relations between Turkey and Israel as fragility and instability. If we neglect the strategic deepening and institutional collaborations that were seen for a short time in the 1990s, we are now dealing with a relationship that is highly dependent on regional developments and the Palestine problem in particular.[3] Hence the question is: is this status quo subject to change?

From the start of relations between Israel and Turkey circa 1949, Turkish decision-makers have had to consider regional concerns and sensitivities in their approach toward Israel. The fact that the relationship continued despite these considerations implies that this delicate relationship will continue for the foreseeable future. Although there seems to be no change in the approach towards Israel among the elites and society in Turkey, some significant geopolitical shifts are taking place at the regional level. These shifts inevitably force the elites to make decisions that are quite disconnected from the foreign policy rhetoric that is constructed bilaterally with their societies, as in the past. The inability of Turkey to adapt gradually to the changes seen in the process of the Abraham Accords is also due to the political discourse, which works to preempt change in some cases. This is related to the leaders' desire to signal the feeling that they are taking a step back in foreign policy to the voters. For this reason, the rhetoric has tried to keep up with the new regional balances by introducing very sharp turns at key moments.

The popular mobilization that emerged and accelerated after the 2011 Arab Spring reinforced the conviction of many leaders that the current political regimes and even the old regional order could not continue as is. The ruling elite in Turkey was no different. It embraced the belief that social dynamics are the main determining factor in politics. But the problem lies with the fact that the social structure is not uniform, and when its demands do not seem to be consistent, they are overlooked. The government’s strategy became invest in the institution and ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it if were a hegemonic power, and embodied popular discontent. Ultimately, social dynamics led to differences of interest between Israel, which desired to maintain the status quo in the region, and Turkey, which preferred an agenda of reform based on popular demands.

It should be noted that the Arab Spring did not change regional politics as expected, and even, ironically, opened the door to a renewal of nationalism.[4] Namely, young and reformist cadres began to replace the traditional elites of the Gulf monarchies. They turned to social reforms at home rather than any aggression in foreign policy. This social reform effort resulted in the sharp purge of established elites at home who could have resisted it. The elites in Turkey reacted to this process, too, for a while. The Gulf elites, however, did not see Ikhwanism as geopolitically significant. In fact, we can call them territorial nationalist elites in this sense. At the same time, nationalism gained steam both in Israel and in the Gulf in the wake of the Arab Spring. A similar phenomenon occurred in Turkey. It would be correct to read Erdoğan's warm-up tours to the region from this perspective. At the end of the day, we can conclude that the winner is country-bound (national) nationalism, and the loser is Ikhwanism.

It may only become clear over time whether the current Turkish rapprochement with Israel will maintain its course or not. This is because a series of crises or set of opportunities expected to occur during the process of rapprochement will define and limit the attitudes and positions that actors on both sides can take. The pre-receptive mechanism has been mentioned. This mechanism will come into play in the event of a crisis and prevent the relations of the two countries from deteriorating. At present, both sides appear to be in the initial phase of reorienting relations, which involves getting a feel for the other side.

The crisis of Turkey's ideological and geopolitical domination project progressed in conjunction with the worsening of the economic situation in the country.[5] The growing scale of the economic crisis in Turkey has increased the importance of creating an alternative outlook for decision-makers. In other words, strategies started to be developed due to the necessity of focusing on foreign policy instead of internal dynamics that do not allow any political capital in domestic politics. Another effect of the economic crisis is that voters’ ideological orientations loosened, for instance, by embracing the need for urgent and practical solutions rather than ones that adhere strictly to ideology. Consequently, President Erdoğan is starting to take bold steps in foreign policy, about a year before the elections. Because, in the already established relationship between his voter base and Erdoğan, the priorities of both sides have changed due to the worsening of the economic situation. Current polls indicate that the upcoming elections will be difficult for Erdoğan, hence he is looking for ways to reduce the general economic dissatisfaction by trying to re-establish a sense of trust in the Turkish economy not only with respect to global markets but also among his electorate by building an appropriate foreign policy.

Over the past decade, the ethos-centered structuring of foreign policy was antithetical to a pragmatic and interest-based approach. The search for concepts such as "precious loneliness" or "moral foreign policy" was important in terms of determining the limitations of Turkish foreign policy. These obligations, on the other hand, began to lose their meaning and become dysfunctional amidst the changing balance of regional alliances after the Arab Spring. With the emergence of the Abraham Accords, new centers of regional geopolitics have formed around Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey’s efforts to adapt to these new centers and institutionalization processes will take time. However, the political system and bureaucracy in Turkey prefer to root their policy preferences toward the Middle East in partnerships with the new power balances that are now concentrated and centralized in the Gulf.

Dr. Gökhan Çınkara is a researcher, a columnist, and an analyst. He is the CEO of Ankara Center for Global Politics. He is an assistant professor at Necmettin Erbakan University, previously he was a researcher at Ankara University on Comparative Politics, Political Parties, Constitutional Institutes, Political Sociology, Intellectual History, Israeli Studies. He was a visiting researcher at Brandeis University in 2018 and a visiting researcher at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2016/2017. Çınkara received his PhD in political science from Ankara University.

[1] Isabel Kershner, “Israel and Turkey Agree to Resume Full Diplomatic Ties,” New York Times, 26 June 2016.

[2] Gokhan Cinkara, “Interpreting Turkey’s Current Diplomatic Rapprochement Toward the Gulf,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), 22 March 2022.

[3] Ofra Bengio, The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2004).

[4] Ryan Bohl, “A New Brand of Nationalism Takes Root in the Middle East,” Stratfor: Rane Worldview, 4 September 2020,

[5] Ayla Jean Yackley, “The Turkish Inflation Hits 20-Year High of 54%,” Financial Times, 3 March 2022.