Israel and Turkey nearing rapprochement, but questions linger

On Thursday, December 17, 2015, Israel’s Channel 10 correspondent Ayala Hasson reported that Israel and Turkey agreed to terms that would normalize diplomatic ties between the two states.

The reported terms of the deal are as follows:

1) Israel and Turkey will restore full diplomatic ties, including the return of ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv, respectively.

2) The charges against former IDF officers involved in planning the commando raid of the MV Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010 will be dropped (most likely via Turkish legislation to that effect).

3) Israel will establish a fund (to the amount of $20 million) that will be used as compensation to the families of those Turkish citizens who died aboard the MV Mavi Marmara.

4) Turkey will commit to no longer tolerate “terrorist activities” on its sovereign territory. In particular, Hamas’ Saleh al-Arouri, the Hamas operative allegedly behind the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens (Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach) in the West Bank in June 2014, will be barred from entering Turkey.

5) Israel and Turkey will commence negotiations regarding the export of Israeli natural gas to Turkey, and the construction of a pipeline between the two territories.

Though natural gas is at the bottom of this list, most analysts were quick to point out its centrality to the storyline. In fact, Hasson’s story aired just hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed through a controversial framework deal that will allow Noble Energy and Delek Group to extract and export offshore natural gas from Israel’s Leviathan field. By some estimates, Leviathan’s gas could be ready for export within a year. And despite the fact that Israel has entertained the possibility of exporting its gas to practically every other neighbor in the Eastern Mediterranean, and relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have been downright hostile over the last five years, most analysts agree that the Turkish route is the most profitable option.

Netanyahu views offshore natural gas as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Israel to enhance its economic security as well as increase its strategic interdependence with its neighbors. Not coincidentally, energy security is also a major concern for Turkey.

Roughly 56% of Turkey’s natural gas is imported from Russia (and another 18% from Iran). Prior to November 24, 2015 Ankara and Moscow seemed destined to cooperate on a $12 billion Turkish Stream pipeline project that would
carry Russian gas via Turkey to Europe. But the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber along the Turkey-Syria border reversed this process. Within a matter of days negotiations over Turkish Stream were suspended.

Signing an energy deal with Israel offers Turkey two clear benefits. First, it demonstrates to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Turks can find alternative sources for their energy (Turkey signed another gas deal with Qatar on December 2). Second, diversification of Turkey’s energy supply will allow it to withstand the potential economic hardship if Russia chooses to use natural gas as a geopolitical weapon. Based on the turbulent history between the two states, there is good reason to believe that Moscow will find a way to exact revenge.

For Israel and Turkey, Russian intervention in Syria and potential energy cooperation were points of mutual interest before the Su-24 bomber was shot down. Therefore, narrowly focusing on these issues discounts the arduous process – including moments of unlikely cooperation and periods where the possibility of rapprochement appeared remote – that laid the groundwork for this moment. From a broader context, these recent events are accelerating a process already in motion.

It also overlooks the fact that for both Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the domestic atmosphere for reconciliation couldn’t be better. Neither leader faces elections in the near future and are free to implement policy as they see fit. Just as important, the representatives (for Israel, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold and new Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and for Turkey, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu) conducting secret negotiations over the last few months are political appointees who accurately reflect the interests of their leaders.

Nevertheless, if the reported details are accurate, then it raises a series of critical questions.

1) What of Gaza? Lifting the Gaza blockade was one of Turkey’s original demands (the other two were a formal apology and compensation to the Mavi Marmara families) but this seems to be ignored in Hasson’s report. Turkey is one of Hamas’ two biggest supporters, and a deal with Israel isn’t likely to change this. So what arrangement – public or private – can be reached that would satisfy Israeli security concerns and not force Turkey to abandon this critical stipulation? Officials on both sides have commented that despite the positive atmosphere, resolving the Gaza issue remains a significant sticking point. Without question, any effort Israel’s make to ease the flow of goods into Gaza will be welcomed in Ankara.

2) How does Hamas factor in this deal? Erdoğan met with Khaled Meshaal in Istanbul on December 19, no doubt to discuss how the latest developments between Turkey and Israel it effects Hamas.

But what does Hamas think about the possibility of Israeli-Turkish rapprochement? We don’t know, and it is quite possible that there will be a difference of opinion within the organization’s political and military leadership. However there is no question that Hamas will have a say in the matter. Israeli-Turkish relations rise and fall in conjunction with the flows of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (To that effect, the fact that rumors of a deal surfaced during a particularly intense period of violence in Israel and the West Bank supports the idea that Turkey is committed to reaching a deal.) It is therefore crucial that Israel and Turkey establish the mechanism to productively communicate with one another if, and when, there is future conflict in the Gaza Strip.

3) How will Russia react? Any answer to this question is speculative. On the one had, Netanyahu and Putin seem to have found an effective and mature way to communicate and deconflict over Syria. Russian planes frequently violate Israeli airspace without incident, and Israel conducts missions in Syrian territory without fear of Russian interference. The alleged Israeli airstrike that killed Hezbollah’s Samir Kuntar over the weekend is further evidence that Jerusalem and Moscow are managing the situation.

Could reconciliation with Turkey negatively impact this dynamic? Probably not. Putin knows that any altercation with Israel would draw unwanted American attention. Still, some analysts believe that it is only a matter of time before Russia tests Israel’s red lines.

4) What role did the US play in facilitating negotiations, if any? The last time there was any reported U.S. involvement in Israeli-Turkish affairs was in March 2013, when President Barack Obama convinced Netanyahu to apologize to Erdogan over the phone (see this fantastic article by Amir Tibon and Tal Shalev that details the awkward moment). Still, it would surprise me if the U.S. didn’t have some hand in this round of talks.
5) How will a potential deal impact Israel and Turkey’s relations with the other actors in the Eastern Mediterranean? When Israeli-Turkish relations suffered in 2010, Jerusalem reached out to other states in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to make up for the loss. In the last five years, Israel strengthened ties with Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, states that, ironically, all share grievances with Ankara. And because the idea of exporting Israeli natural gas to Turkey seemed improbable, plans involving these other actors took shape. Israel, Cyprus and Greece still plan on participating in a trilateral summit in January to discuss this option.
Reconciliation with Turkey could change all that. For starters, an Israeli pipeline to Turkey may incentivize normalization talks between Turkey and Cyprus. The idea of a two-pronged pipeline through Turkey has been floated in the past, and it shouldn’t immediately be dismissed; Cyprus has the most to gain by cooperating with its neighbors.
Egypt is an altogether different story. Not only are Cairo and Jerusalem strategic partners, but until last week the two were in serious deliberations about exporting Israeli gas to Egypt. However, a court decision on December 16 by an international arbiter dictated that Egypt’s state-owned energy companies owed the Israel Electric court $1.76 billion in damages after repeated militant attacks on an existing pipeline in the Sinai resulted in the contract’s abrupt halt. Negotiations about future projects are currently suspended.
In a fragile region, the slightest diplomatic shift can bring unanticipated consequences. While resolving their outstanding disputes, Israeli and Turkish officials must also discuss the possible impact that rapprochement will have on the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and find ways to ensure that a new chapter in the diplomatic history of their countries does not create new hostilities.
Either way, the reports that Israel and Turkey are nearing reconciliation should be greeted warmly by the American public. Since 2009, when Barack Obama entered office, the United States has implemented a regional strategy without the cooperation of its two most crucial allies. It may be too late for the current president, but signs that Jerusalem and Ankara are ready to move on from their dispute is unquestionably a good thing for the citizens of both countries and the West.
Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey