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Back together? Why Turkey-Israel relations may be thawing

Dan Arbell

Recent developments in Turkey and Israel—on energy security and domestic politics, in particular—may help pave the way for a long-awaited rapprochement between the two countries.

It’s been five and a half years since the May 2010 Israel raid on the Mavi Marmara (part of the Gaza flotilla), which soured relations between Ankara and Jerusalem. At present, they’re characterized by distrust and suspicion at the top level, personal animosity between the leaders, a limited dialogue between the two governments, and ambassadors yet to be appointed. However, trade is booming and Israeli tourists are flocking back to Turkish vacation destinations.

Wanted: Energy supply and cooperation on Syria

Turkey’s downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet along the Syrian border on November 24 has provoked crisis in its relationship with Russia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin characterizing Turkey’s action as “a stab in the back.” Extending beyond bilateral relations, that crisis affects Turkey’s foreign policy more broadly. For Turkey, the most critical element in this feud is its energy security. 

Turkey imports most of its natural gas from Russia, and the two sides have long been engaged in talks to expand this relationship through the proposed Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline, which would channel gas to Turkey and Europe underneath the Black Sea (circumventing Ukraine). But on November 26, Russian Minister of Development Alexi Ulyukayev announced the cancellation of the project, sending shock waves throughout Turkey. The move has prompted concerns among the Turkish leadership about the reliability of Russian gas and a corresponding search for alternative supplies in the region. In addition to discussions with Qatar and Azerbaijan, there have been more statements in recent weeks from Turkish politicians, energy companies, and others calling for talks with Israel about future natural gas imports.

The Syrian crisis is another issue on which Turkey may seek quiet Israeli support—particularly the support of Israeli intelligence, which may prove crucial to Turkish war efforts.

Politically, the timing could be convenient: the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government could approach Israel and begin talks where they left off nearly two years ago. The dust has settled over the November 2015 elections and the AKP is not facing any serious domestic political challenges in the near future. The ball is now in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s court. He commented to reporters in Paris on November 30 that he believes he’s “able to fix ties” with Israel, hinting at his willingness to move forward. He then stated on December 13 that the “region definitely needs” Turkish-Israeli normalization, citing previous Turkish demands for compensation to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara incident as well as the lifting of the Gaza blockade as his conditions for normalization.

Wanted: Energy demand and cooperation on Syria

From Jerusalem’s perspective, Israeli energy security may provide a “fig leaf” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to reach out to Turkey. Netanyahu and his cabinet have been stuck for nearly a year in attempts to approve and launch a compromise between the government and the gas companies (Delek and Noble) to begin the crucial phase of development of Israel’s largest Eastern Mediterranean gas field, Leviathan. About to clear the last hurdle before launching the deal, Netanyahu is under pressure to demonstrate the national security benefits of developing the gas. In this context, he and the Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz have said that Turkey is being seriously considered as a future export destination. In a Knesset hearing, Netanyahu went even further by revealing that Israel has recently been engaged in discussions with Turkey to further explore the export option. 

The Syrian crisis provides Israel another reason to engage with Turkey. Israel is quite weary of the situation in Syria and may benefit from Turkish analysis and intelligence on this issue. 

Politically, Netanyahu will not face problems within his narrow coalition if he decides to warm up relations with Turkey. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a staunch critic of Turkey and its leadership, is no longer in office. The recently appointed Chief of Mossad (currently National Security Advisor) Yossi Cohen, in contrast, is known to be a proponent of closer ties between Israel and Turkey. 

Re-friending?

Official visits between the two sides have been increasing: in June, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Director General Dore Gold and his Turkish counterpart Feridun Sinirlioğlu met in Rome; in September, Professor Guven Sak (the head of the government-supported research institute of the Turkish industrialists and businessmen, TEPAV) led the first official visit to Israel by a Turkish political delegation; on December 3, Israeli news outlet NRG reported on a visit by Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Deputy Director General for Europe, Aviv Shiron’s visit to Ankara and Istanbul in an attempt to warm relations between the two countries. 

There is no love lost between Israel and Turkey, and many issues still need to be resolved. Erdoğan has stated his conditions for normalization, and Netanyahu is reportedly insisting that Turkey expel Hamas operative Saleh al-Arouri (who has been directing Hamas terrorist activities in the West Bank) from its territory, as a condition. However, the current convergence of interests may pave the way to a resolution of the crisis between these two former strategic allies. In March 2013, President Obama helped orchestrate a formal Israeli apology to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara incident. Moving forward, more American senior-level diplomacy is needed. The United States—which has been active behind the scenes—will likely need to further push the two sides toward one another.

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