Turkey and Israel: Could There Be an Alliance?

23.12.2015 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

3454534444Ever since Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey for treacherously shooting down a Russian SU-24 bomber in the Syrian airspace on November 24, President Erdogan has urgently sought opportunities to develop relations with other countries in the region. First of all, it was dictated by the intention to reduce the loss from Russian economic sanctions and hence avoid the growing discontent of the population with the foreign and social policies carried out by Turkey’s leadership. In addition, an important factor in Ankara’s foreign political activity in recent weeks was the desire to diversify energy supplies to Turkey, which it desperately needs, and in doing so to become less dependent on Russia.

It is the latter that prompted Ankara to try and secure the growth of its supply of gas from northern Iraq and Azerbaijan.

and attempt to accelerate the construction of The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), but this would require the early completion of other elements of the “Southern Gas Corridor” project between the Caspian Sea and Italy: to ensure an earlier start of gas production on the Shah Deniz field; to extend the South Caucasus gas pipeline to the starting point of TANAP on the Georgian-Turkish border. Turkey also drew attention to northern Iraq and on December 3 stated that Botas, the gas state company, will announce a tender for the construction of the pipeline, which will connect Silopi on the Iraqi border with the Turkish gas transportation system in the city of Mardin.

To connect to the Israeli Tamar and Leviathan fields, Turkey has to solve the problem of its practically severed relations with Israel as well as the divided Cyprus.

That’s why, on December 11, at the height of the conflict with Moscow, and after a recent visit to Azerbaijan and Qatar, the Turkish leader embarked on a two-day visit to Ashgabat. During his talks with G. Berdimuhamedov, the President of this extraordinarily hydrocarbon-rich Central Asian state, Erdogan actively probed the possibility of the reorientation of Turkmen gas, as one of the alternatives to Russian gas.

Simultaneously, the Turkish government has decided to urgently reconsider the relations with Israel that were almost completely severed 5 years ago, and revive the old idea of ​​placing a gas pipeline through Turkey to export Israeli gas to Europe, as recently reported by The Jerusalem Post. According to this publication, the “crisis of the downed Russian plane is, no doubt, a key impetus to the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel.” Ankara is clearly hoping that Israel has a lot to offer: its gas fields may become a new source of energy, its clout with Washington could partially mitigate the criticism that Erdogan is exposed to for his extravagance in relations with Russia; Israel could become a powerful regional counterweight to the resurgent Iran – a phenomenon feared by all the other Sunni powers. In addition, Turkey is clearly interested in balancing the axis “Russia-Cyprus-Egypt” in the Mediterranean.

And against this background, on December 16, in an atmosphere of utmost secrecy, negotiations were held in Zurich (Switzerland), which were attended by the Under Secretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Feridun Sinirlioğlu, as well as the recently appointed new head of “Mossad” – Yossi Cohen, and Joseph Ciechanover – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy in relations with Turkey. During the meeting, Turkey and Israel reached a tentative agreement and are expected to fully restore diplomatic relations after five years of the “Ice Age”.

These two countries, once close regional allies, fell out after a deadly confrontation in 2010 between Israeli soldiers and activists on the Turkish passenger ship “Mavi Marmara” of the so-called “Freedom Flotilla,” which sought to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

If we take a quick look at history, it becomes apparent that, in principle, the relationship between the two countries began to deteriorate before the incident with the “Mavi Marmara,” right after two events occurred in the world – the coming to power of the current ruling party in Turkey today – the Justice and Development Party (JDP) and the occupation of Iraq by NATO military forces.

Both in Turkey and in Israel, the JDP Party is well known for its critical comments and negative attitude toward the Jewish state. Ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at that time the leader of the JDP, was elected as Prime Minister, Turkey has been on the path of rapid Islamization, at the same time intensifying its anti-Israeli rhetoric. In 2009, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, there was an ugly skirmish between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister of Turkey, after which Erdogan left the forum.

The second circumstance – the occupation of Iraq by NATO troops – completely undermined the relations between Turkey and Israel, as Tel Aviv, to the wonder and bewilderment of Turkey, began to provide financial and military support to the Kurds of Iraq.

It should be noted that both of these factors coincided in time and heated up the unfavorable situation between Turkey and Israel, and then, like a snow avalanche, other causes and factors began to appear. And so, Turkey, for the past decade, perhaps out of Islamic solidarity, but more likely to annoy the United States, began to gradually establish relations with the Israeli enemy – Iran. Israel, in its turn, began to build bridges with the Armenian lobby. Since 2007, Israel has been explaining its actions as taking the necessary security measures against militant groups of Hamas and has strengthened controls at its maritime borders with the Gaza Strip, which eventually led to the blockade.

In Turkey, sentiment against Israel intensified even more after the so-called “Cast Lead” operation in 2008. Apparently in retaliation, Turkey gradually began to establish relations with Israel’s eternal enemy – the Palestinians, including the militant group Hamas.

The last straw in the partnership between Turkey and Israel were the events of May 2010 – when the so-called “Freedom Flotilla,” consisting of 700 pro-Palestinian activists and loaded with 10 thousand tons of humanitarian aid and building materials, was heading to the Gaza Strip. As a result of the collision, 120 km from the Palestinian territories’ blockade zone, Israeli ships intercepted six vessels, 10 activists were killed and 10 commandos were injured.

So, the first talks between Turkey and Israel in Zurich have ended. A number of preliminary agreements were reached:

- The parties will restore diplomatic relations, and return their ambassadors;

- All indictments and lawsuits against Israeli soldiers who took part in the clash with the flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip in 2010, initiated by Turkey against Israel, will be dropped;

- Israel will create a fund to help the victims of the “Freedom Flotilla” interception. Roughly, the compensation may be about $ 20 million, but the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out that the final amount has not yet been determined;

- Turkey will prohibit entry onto its territory of Salah al-Arouri – one of the leaders of Hamas and will not allow him to engage in terrorist activity from the Turkish territory;

- The negotiations concerning supply of gas by Israel to Turkey, as well as the construction of a gas pipeline are soon to commence. It is also remarkable, that on December 16, the Israeli government finally approved a long-awaited deal, which will enable the US-Israeli partnership to develop a large marine gas field. This allows Turkey to hope for the possibility to receive gas from Israel in the nearest future.

Of course, the deal between Turkey and Israel in Zurich will help the United States not only to maintain security in the region, but also to deter Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s why the White House has already hastened to express approval of the preliminary agreement reached by the two countries.

However, whether Israel and Turkey can overcome the feud simmering over the last five years and whether Erdogan will, due to his uncontrolled and unpredictable behavior, reveal the true essence of his anti-Israeli policies – time will tell.

Vladimir Odintsov, a political commentator, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.