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Israelis are back in Turkey after a lost decade
When we speak of the recent history of Turkish-Israeli relations, two dates stand out. The first is Jan. 30, 2009, when then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was on a Davos panel with President Shimon Peres. Erdoğan told Peres what he thought of Israel’s policies, and stormed off the stage.
The second was in May 31, 2010, when a flotilla of six Turkish ships, led by the Mavi Marmara, tried to breach the Gaza embargo and were stopped by Israeli soldiers. Ten Turkish activists were killed and one Israeli soldier was seriously wounded.
Relations have been in deep freeze ever since. Sure, trade continued, people still travelled back and forth, but people could never be sure about the future of relations.
2019 was a ray of hope in that respect. The Marker, an Israeli business newspaper, reports that in addition to Antalya’s summer alure, Istanbul is now considered as a destination for winter vacation. According to my translation software, one Israeli tourist said, “Turks are kind and would like you to be happy. It’s a place you feel yourself so much secure.”
Reading the article, I realized how much I missed reading positive things about Turkey in the foreign press. The data confirms that things are improving. After the Davos incident in 2009, the number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey declined by around 45 percent to roughly 300,000 a year.
After Mavi Marmara in 2010, it declined to around 100,000. Now after the lost decade, the number of Israeli tourists in Turkey has once again peaked to above 500,000.
Total trade between Israel and Turkey was not influenced directly by the political climate. In 2008 our trade volume was around $3.4 billion. It has now increased by around 60 percent, reaching $5.6 billion. Why? Unlike most countries in our region, both Israel and Turkey are free, open markets with rules-based trading mechanisms. So, Turkey’s political relations with Russia or Iran may impact its trade with those countries, but not Turkish - Israeli trade relations. They are fairly isolated from the whims of the countries’ leaders.
That doesn’t mean that economic relations didn’t take a hit. Israeli investments in Turkey were once a steady stream: $112 million in 2006, $98 million in 2007, and $100 million in 2008. This figure declined to the single digits by 2010, and mostly stayed there throughout the decade. Turkey was a place you might trade with, but you didn’t want to park your money there and build long-term relationships.
When I call 2009 to 2019 the lost decade, I mean this loss of confidence between the two nations. That is why it’s so good to see Israeli tourists back in Turkey. It means that confidence is back on the Israeli side. Now is the time for Israeli investors to start considering Turkey again.
And the gains could be substantial for Turkey. Just imagine what the situation in eastern Mediterranean would be like if we didn’t have this lost decade. The architect of Turkey’s Libya policy, Admiral Cihat Yaycı, actually suggested that Turkey extend the same deal it made with Libya to Israel. Anyone who thinks about Turkish strategy in rational terms always comes to the same conclusion: Cut deals with the major market economy and preeminent military power in the region.
The Turkish industry needs a technological jump and the discussion on this sometimes feels locked between the European and Asian options, but there is a deep well of investment and technology right here in our region. There are political problems to untangle, but if our diplomats and politicians do the work, the benefits will be substantial. Check out Istanbul-Tel Aviv flights. There are more than 12 flights every day, mind you, and they are seldom empty.