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Elections in Tunisia

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The elections held in Tunisia saw 7,065,883 registered voters, with 49% of women and over a third of voters under 35 years of age. The voters outside the national territory were 385,546.

There were 217 seats to be assigned and 4,871 polling stations with 12,000 international observers. 

 The lists were closed: hence the voters elected the candidates already chosen by the party they selected from the list.

Currently the seats in Tunisia are allocated according to the Hare-Niemeyer method (also known as the largest remainder method), which requires the numbers of votes for each party to be divided by a quota representing the number of votes necessary to win a seat.

The result for each party usually consists of an integer part plus a fractional remainder. Each party is first allocated a number of seats equal to their integer. This generally leaves some seats unallocated: the parties are then ranked on the basis of the fractional remainders and the parties with the largest remainders are each allocated one additional seat until all the seats have been allocated.

 The candidates are alternated between men and women in 33 multi-member electoral zones, as well as in 27 constituencies on the national territory, in addition to 6 for Tunisians abroad.

 Electoral systems always determine the results.

It should also be recalled that the 2011 movement, which led to new elections after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has also drafted a new Constitution. It is essential to stay in power with the democracy granted by Western manipulations, including the jihadist ones.

 The last few years, however, have been marked by an alliance between Nidaa Tounes, a secular party, and Ennahda, the political movement linked to the Tunisian group of the Muslim Brotherhood.

As to the candidates for Presidency, the Tunisian law requires that each competitor to the office behaves consistently with the constitutional values, shows financial guarantees and, finally, all the necessary documents of support from the parties and the groups of reference. Obviously each candidate shall also demonstrate of not having any criminal or civil conviction in place or already served.

 Let us examine the candidates who took part in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

 This will be the best possible interpretation to analyse Tunisia’s internal political structure.

In fact, it should be recalled that on September 15, 2019, the last Tunisian presidential election was held, with two main contenders, namely Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui.

 In the second round, on October 13, 2019, the independent candidate Kais Saied won before his contender Nabil Karoui, labelled as “populist” by the Western media.

 Kaid Saied, labelled as “conservative” by Western media, which are very good at creating banal labels, is a jurist and a professor of constitutional law at the University of Tunis.

 He obtained 27.5% of votes, with a turnout slightly over 50% of those entitled to vote.

 His electoral campaign without public funds at his disposal and  with no party support was focused only on the fight against corruption.

 Another theme of Kaid Saied’s campaign not to be overlooked is the federalist reform of administrative, tax and political regulations.

 It is certainly surprising to see a federalist solution in a small country like Tunisia, but it should be noted that on May 6, 2018, local elections were held – on the basis of the 2014 Constitution – for as many as 350 Tunisian municipalities and regions.

It should also be recalled that the fragmentation and splitting up of representation was an old and ingenious idea of Habib Bourghiba.

Furthermore, the 2014 Constitution devotes the whole seventh chapter to the structure of local power.

In the last elections of May 2018, 37.16% of the local seats was won by candidates under 35 years of age, with 29.55% of the local presidencies won by women, who gained 47.05% of all the seats assigned.

The independent lists won massively also in local elections. In fact, Kaid Saied, the winner of the very recent run-off, repeated – at national level – the small miracle of the 2018 local elections.

It should be recalled, however, that only 35.7% of registered voters really went to the polls.

  Nabil Karoui had been released from prison 48 hours before the elections, where he had been staying since last August 23. He had been arrested on charges of money laundering, financial fraud and corruption.

 In the first round, however, Karoui had obtained 15.6% of votes, thus qualifying for the final round.

 Karoui is the owner of Nessma TV and, in any case, regardless of the election results, his assets have been frozen and he cannot expatriate.

His release has even called into question the election regularity from the legal viewpoint.

However, only the leadership of Ennahda, the political faction of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood, branded Saied as “conservative”.

In principle, voters’ disappointment regards the “free market” reforms and the so-called “austerity” policies. However, the current political and hence electoral tension concerns above all unemployment, which is now over 15.6% and mainly affects the younger groups.

Not to mention the high inflation rate, which is equal to 6.7% but is relatively stable. Prices, however, rise by 0.6% every month, and this is essential to understand people’s feelings and mood.

 According to the World Bank data – unlike what is known as on the spot rate – the average inflation rate, based on daily data, has been only 5.3% from 1963 to 2019. Hence nothing new under the sun.

As fully confirmed by the latest data, the growth rate for 2019 is equal to 1.5%.

However, according to the Monetary Fund, it will grow by 2.4% in 2020 and 4.4% in 2024.

Moreover, before elections, the Tunisian government has developed a new economic policy for purely electoral considerations, with an eye to winning votes.

 The pillar of this policy is, essentially, to maintain a “sustainable” budget deficit, and hence of foreign debt, with a more careful control of the inflation rate and with a structural reform of public finance.

 The idea is to reduce the budget deficit to 4.9% of GDP as from 2019.

 The latest data on inflation, however, points to an increase of up to 7.2%, which is anyway physiological, although the so-called international bankers regard it as a severe alarm.

 The Tunisian government is also planning to reduce wage and salary growth to 12% of GDP, as well as to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 years.

 Finally, it also plans to retire – without replacing them – thousands of civil servants until 2020, especially those over 55 years of age.

 That is why some of these policies are under the voters’ scrutiny.

Wage cuts and actual stop of hiring in the public sector, as well as the increase in the fuel price and the above-mentioned debt restructuring partly funded by a 3 billion USD loan granted by the International Monetary Fund.

 The jihadist issue, too, is causing debate. Over one thousand of the known 5,000-6,000 foreign fighters are already in prison in Tunis.

 There are also 1,600 other prisoners in Tunisia who are accused of belonging to jihadist organizations, although they have not gone to fight abroad.

 Finally, there are also about 2,500 jihadist militants, who are still entrenched in the Western mountains.

Despite the good anti-jihadist policies implemented by the Tunisian government, all Qaedists are still there, at the core of trafficking and situations that Tunisia, as well as other Maghreb countries, cannot fully control.

Moreover, we do not know whether the new President, who lacks a party supporting him, will have the strength to impose himself on a rather fragmented Parliamentary scene.

 Let us see, in fact, who were the main candidates for Presidency, all long-time politicians.

 Let us begin with Mohamed Abbou, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party known as the “Democratic Current”.

 He was formerly the leader of the only real opposition party during Ben Ali’s rule, the Congress for the Republic.

 Minister in charge of Administrative Reform after 2011, he quickly resigned from his post in controversy with the other parties, which did not give room for manoeuvre.

Another candidate was Abir Moussi from the Free Destourian Party, hence de facto heir to Bourguiba’s and Ben Ali’s great tradition.

  Westerners, who like to put labels, define her a “populist”, but she is the sworn enemy of Ennahda, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood that she often declares she “wants to send back to prison”.

The candidates standing for the last Presidential election included also the aforementioned Nabil Kharoui, who is the owner of Nessma TV, the private satellite channel of which both Mediaset and Quinta Communications, a company of Tarak Ben Ammar, are shareholders.

It should be recalled that also Gaddafi had tried to acquire a shareholding in Quinta Communications, but the 2011 rebellion killed the Libyan Colonel and hence stopped the operation in Tunisia.

 As a strong supporter of the late President Essebsi, before the last election Abir Moussi had founded the Heart of Tunisia Party.

Promoting her image as “candidate for the poor”, she is anyway active in charity work through her associations throughout the Tunisian territory, especially in marginal areas.

She was leading the opinion polls before the election.

Another candidate for Presidency was Lofti M’Raihi, proposed by the Union Populaire Républicaine, a social-national (but not national-socialist) party. He is a politician who speaks out mainly against “corruption” and proposes “direct democracy”, although not through the Internet.

Apart from his positions centred around opposition to the ruling establishment, which he accuses of corruption and the use of political media to serve narrow interests, his platform is similar to what in the West we would call “reformist”.

Another candidate was Mehdi Jomaa, the former Head of government in the technocratic phase from January to February 2015, which came as an alternative to the political alliance dominated by Ennahda.

 He had previously served as Minister for Industry and Trade in the Troika government between 2011 and 2013. 

The Troika was an alliance between Ennahda, the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, also referred to as Ettakatol – now strong only in Kasserine – and finally the Congress for the Republic.

Currently Mehdi Jomaa is the candidate of AlBadil Ettounsi, a liberal-republican Party with secular and conservative tendencies.

With a view to better describing Tunisia’s political landscape, we need to mention also another candidate for the Presidency, namely Hamma Hammami, the leader of the Popular Front, a coalition of small leftist parties.

As one of the old leaders opposing the former authoritarian regimes of Bourghiba and Ben Ali, he was very popular during the 2011 uprising. He believes, however, that Ennahda runs also a secret apparatus that collaborates with the “regime”.

In his opinion, the current rulers are simply “foreign agents”.

Another candidate was Mohammed Moncef Marzouki, who served as former President of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014, through the endorsement of members of the Constituent Assembly.

He was also a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections against the last President Essesbi, receiving 44% of the total votes cast.

 He is known for his long political struggle and opposition against the authoritarian regimes in the era of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, as well as for his human rights activism. He was the most prominent leader of the Congress for the Republic Party, later named Al Irada. In the last election he ran as leader of the brand new coalition “Another Tunisia Alliance”.

As President, he had constantly criticized Assad’ Syrian regime and the Egyptian leaders. He was one of the harshest opponents of Essebsi’s government, but his electoral campaign also focused on the fight against universal corruption and shameful media manipulation in favour of the regime.

Mention must also be made of Abdelkarim Zbidi, former Defence Minister and heir to Essebsi.

 He is a doctor and served as Defence Minister in the 2011-2013 and 2016-2019 governments.

He, too, is a bitter enemy of Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

 Abdelfattah Mourou is Ennahda’s candidate. He is the current Speaker of Parliament. He is a traditionalist, but with the widespread reputation of being “moderate” and “tolerant”.

 He supports democratic and pluralist Islam, but he has undoubted personal prestige and credibility both within the political class and the public at large.

 He still hangs a portrait of Habib Bourghiba in his house, as he has declared to the Tunisian press.

 Another candidate for the Tunisian Presidency was Youssef Chahed, former Head of the National Unity Government since August 27, 2016, serving as Minister for Local Development.

He was a former member of the aforementioned Republican Party and later of Nidaa Tounes, also known as Call for Tunisia, which is the political group founded by Essebsi.

Currently he is honorary President of the Tahya Tounes Party, also known as “Long Live Tunisia”.

He, too, fights a war against corruption, although critics have accused him of the same practices for which he criticizes his adversaries, i.e. exploiting public facilities and State resources in favour of his election campaign and to politically eliminate his opponents.

The female candidates included also Selma Elloumi Rekik, running for the Amal Tounes Party after her final separation from Nidaa Tounes.

 She had already served as Minister in Habib Essid’s government (2015-2016) and she emphasized her commitment to continuing the path of the late President Essesbi, reaffirming her diligence to represent all social groups and defend women’s rights.

With a view to describing the Tunisian political dynamics, we also need to mention the candidate Ahmed Safi Saïd, who ran in the presidential race for the second time as an independent.

He enjoyed the endorsement and support of the People’s Movement, which has an Arab Nasserist nationalist ideology.

He is a refined intellectual and public figure – also with a Western background – and he much relies and bets on the youth voters’ base. He supports an idea of Tunisia as middle regional power, albeit decisive, among the various Maghreb players.

 He also wants to strengthen and empower the intelligence Services, the true axis of every modern country.

 He also has an ideology contrary to what nowadays is defined – confusingly – neo-liberalism. He wants a Tunisian society with enhanced military capabilities, suitable for rising up to the post-modernity challenges, including the regional ones.

The presidential candidate of the Social-Democratic Union was Abid Bikri, the current Secretary-General of the movement Tunisie En Avant (Tunisia Forward).

 He was a senior leader of the Tunisian General labour Union prior to his appointment as Minister for Public Service and Governance in the National Unity Government of 2016-2017.

Chayed, too, has started another obvious fight against corruption, which is his sworn enemy.

He is another candidate opposing “Ennahda’s secret apparatus”, which indeed exists.

 He is particular interested in resolving the situation in Libya.

 Hence the divisions and fragmentation of the Tunisian political landscape are the a posteriori explanation of the 2011 rebellions.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The US-Iran deal and its implications for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe

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Image credit: EPA

The ongoing meetings between the US and Iran since the beginning of April in Vienna show new signs of progress. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister, in the last days suggested that a ‘new understanding’ is being shaped. Any possibility of reaching an agreement and the US returning to the deal once abandoned by former US President Donald Trump, will result in a new state of affairs in wider Eurasia. New opportunities may also emerge for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe creating new sources for security and development.

The nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and six world powers – the USA, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany – back in 2015 was envisaged to bring Iran’s nuclear enrichment process under stricter international inspection and monitoring. In response, the US and other participants of the deal pledged to lift sanctions imposed on Iran. 

However, in May 2018 the process was mostly undermined by former US President Donald Trump, whose administration decided to withdraw from the deal. The withdrawal was followed by a new wave of sanctions and targeted assassinations of a few prominent Iranians, among them General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, killed by an American drone strike in Iraq in January 2020. All the efforts of the Trump administration to dismantle the Iranian regime and its ambitions resulted in the resumption of the nuclear enrichment program. Upon his election, President Joe Biden expressed his sincere interest in returning to the deal. This led to the recent negotiations between Tehran and Washington in the Austrian capital. 

The fact that Iran and the US are mutually interested in the restoration of the JCPOA can be explained in a number of ways. The most apparent aspect is the US return to the international arena which it, to some extent, left under Trump’s isolationist policy. The American active engagement in the nuclear deal with Iran is aimed at various targets. In reviving the deal, Washington may hinder the hardliners’ return to power in Iran during the upcoming presidential elections this summer. Besides, Iran is becoming a regional bastion for China, which uses Iran’s economic vulnerabilities to maximise its gains. Finally, the rapprochement of Turkey and Russia creates another danger for US interests in the region, prompting it to reconsider its politics in the Middle East. In other words, the US and Iran need this recovery in relations for reasons stemming from the core principle of Realism, the balance of power; in order not to allow dramatic shifts in the geopolitical landscape, not only in the Middle East but also in central Eurasia. 

Russia’s strengthened stance in the South Caucasus following the second Karabakh war can primarily be explained by its emerging relations with Turkey, which were described by Russia’s chief diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, as ‘sui generis co-operation and competition’. This odd couple could dismantle hopes of peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, France and Russia. The Russian-Turkish duo have created the vast majority of the broader region’s flash points ranging from Libya to Syria and Karabakh. Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey is in Moscow’s favour and is aimed at disuniting NATO. On the other hand, Turkey’s bold politics speak about its global ambitions and desire to set its own course. Both behaviours are in direct contradiction of American vital interests, which is reflected in harsh criticism of the Kremlin and Ankara. In the case of Moscow, this reached a historic post-Cold War peak – Biden’s recent scandalous statement on Putin, calling him a ‘killer’, has inflamed relations between the two countries. 

The USA is actively supporting any activities aimed at decreasing the influence of Russia and China in various parts of the world. One of such projects is the so-called ‘Three Seas Initiative’. Created in 2015 by the presidents of Croatia and Poland, this project brings together the twelve states of Eastern and Central Europe located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. The main goal is to counter the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region, which is less developed than Western Europe and more open to foreign direct investments. Aimed at developing infrastructure, energy co-operation and digitalisation, the initiative seeks to create ”North-South” energy and infrastructure corridors. Given the US ambitions to reduce the region’s dependence on Russian energy supplies, the nuclear deal with Iran opens new opportunities. The fact that the Chinese Silk Road is heading to Europe via Central Asia and Turkey, it could be better to allow Iran to export its gas through Armenia and Georgia to Eastern Europe under the Black Sea. Firstly, this would solve the European dependence on Russian energy supplies. The export of natural resources has been traditionally used by the Kremlin as a foreign policy instrument. The reduction of dependence on Russian commodities will ultimately reshape the Kremlin’s behaviour abroad making it more predictable and constructive. The fear that this may plunge Russia into China’s orbit, turning it a puppet state for Beijing, are groundless given the Russian bear’s historical caution of the Chinese dragon. The second important contribution of the Iranian pipeline will be to increase the energy security of Ukraine, which is trying to integrate itself into European infrastructure and move come closer to EU standards at the same time as coping with Russian energy blackmail.

The Iranian pipeline is able to solve the economic and energy independence of the Eastern and Central European EU member states which participate in the ‘Three Seas Initiative’. It may liberalise the energy market of the region and will boost economic development, reducing its gap with Western Europe. 

Finally, the US-Iranian possible rapprochement may also change the state of affairs in the South Caucasus region. The increased Russian presence and active Turkish involvement in the region are aimed at keeping other external actors – and first and foremost the West – out of it. In the long run, this will threaten Georgia’s European dreams in the same way it has harmed Armenia’s democratic aspirations. Alternatively, the vision of being a transit route for Iranian energy pipelines to Europe, whilst also helping to connect India and Eastern Europe, could elevate the security of Georgia and Armenia to a new level.

Therefore, the US-Iran agreement is essential for restoring the balance of power in the region, in order not to allow the main competitors to maximise their gains. This deal promises new opportunities for Central Eurasia, creating room for manoeuvre for the region’s small and fragile countries.

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The Mediterranean: Will Turkey be successful in pulling Egypt to its side?

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The Mediterranean acts as a channel connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The region has, however, become a bone of contention due to varying political setups, religions and cultural values, economic resources, and the existence of crisis situations. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece is highly contentious, developing new complexities that worries the international community. Greece prefersinternational arbitrationwhile Turkey favors the option of bilateral negotiationsconstituting asthe main cause of friction between the two countries.

Historically, root of the crisis also lies in conflicting claims by Turkey and Greece concerning maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), threatening Ankara’s “Blue Homeland”doctrine. To further aggravate the situation, the dispute has now been intertwined withdisputes in the eastern Mediterranean among Turkey and a coalition of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that are doused in geopolitical tensions, energy disputes and Libyan conflict.

Gas discoveries in eastern Mediterranean have increased Turkey’s greed for hydrocarbon exploration. Turkey aims to solve its longstanding economic challenges and reduce its energy dependency due to which the country has increased its energy-related exploration activities in the region resulting in a major gas discovery thus shaping the region towards resource competition. Moreover, Turkey seeks to establish itself as an energy hub for Europe and has signed several oil and gas pipeline deals with Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, its aspirations have significantly remained unsuccessful, and the gas discoveries have deepened its concerns of being left out from the region’s emerging energy and security order due to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).

Conflict in the Mediterranean has unwittingly pushed Libya into a proxy war. Scuffle between Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Turkey to increase its support for GNA by sending troops and weapons to Libya which is a move directly affecting the ongoing situation in the region. GNA signing its EEZ agreement with Turkey while Greece turning to LNA and signing an agreement with Egypt have contributed to exacerbating the dispute. Not only this, but major European powers have shown keen interest in the region that patently require Turkey’s support in terms of migration and counterterrorism. If the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA stabilizes, this would result in an ordered flow of migrants to Europe.

Moreover, Europeans do not wish to abandon a 2016 German-brokered deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) that allows Turkey to maintain a considerable control over refugee movements into Europe. On counterterrorism, France to fight against the terrorism in southern Libya and Benghazi, allied with Haftar against Turkey, despite recognizing the GNA’s sovereignty.  France has developed security partnerships with UAE and Egypt, who are opponents of Turkey in the region.

Egypt’s possession of two liquefication facilities, making the country act as both an exporter and re-exporter of LNG including a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline beneficial to Egypt in terms of economic stability, and help establish itself as a regional power. Cyprus-Egypt pipeline will allow Cyprus to export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, argues that revenue generated from the process must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC). Turkey’s continuation on the belligerent course will bring consequences for Egypt making its support for Greece more prominent. Turkey also stands with Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that focuses on exploitation and regional energy resource sale.

Turkey is keen to become a regional gas trade hub thus looks forward to the initiative of a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which transfers from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey. Reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas could certainly achieve the goals. Talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe were also initiated, however relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan blatantly supporting Palestine. This led Israel to work with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, stemming in devaluation of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline.

Most of the Middle Eastern countries have recalibratedtheir foreign policy following Joe Biden’s presidential win in the United States. Similarly, both Turkey and Egypt have begun to revise their foreign policies as well. The two countries have initiated a series of new diplomatic dialogue including Turkey and Greece signing a maritime delimitation agreement in August 2020.Nonetheless Egypt did not accept Greece’s thesis of having claims over islands in the south of Aegean Sea and it also announced a new oil and gas exploration bid with taking Turkey’s coordinates of the continental shelf into consideration. Moreover, Egypt began to change its Libya policy and improve relations with GNA. Turkey has stated that it is willing to negotiate dialogue with Egypt and focus on common interests.

Understanding the new developments, it is suggested to continue to alleviate tensions as the two countries enjoy same moral values at cultural level, given their shared past and historical ties. That is only possible if the expansionist pan-Islamistproject stops with Erdogan and does not continue with future Turkish governments. Cairo and Ankara must move together on the issues concerning Palestine, Libyan conflict, and the eastern Mediterranean. Despite possible pressure from the Democrats in the Biden administration, Egypt seems reluctant to consider convergence on Islamic synthesisand integration of Muslim brotherhood. Complete normalization of relations between the two sides may take time therefore to establish trust in one another, all parties must take certain confidence-building steps.

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Israel and Turkey in search of solutions

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Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.

Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.

The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.

The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.

In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.

In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.

In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.

On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.

Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.

Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.

In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.

On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.

In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.

Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.

Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).

This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.

The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.

Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.

Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.

Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.

In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.

Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.

We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.

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