The Curious Case of Michael Flynn, Turkey, and Israeli gas

Former US national security advisor, Michael Flynn (Credit: WikiCommons/Gage Skidmore)

Former US national security advisor, Michael Flynn (Credit: WikiCommons/Gage Skidmore)

President Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn has been at the epicenter of an ongoing story for the last few weeks. While I don’t want to rehash what has already been reported, I did find one particular nugget of news relating to the development of Israel’s energy industry to be of potential significance.

Flynn was fired by President Trump because of his interactions with Russian officials, but Flynn’s apparent business relationship with a prominent Turkish entrepreneur may have been the final straw with the new US administration.

Following his firing, the Flynn Intel Group submitted FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act) declaration forms to the US Department of Justice, retroactively informing US officials that its activities “could be construed to have principally benefitted the Republic of Turkey.” In particular, the paperwork highlighted that beginning in August 2016 the Flynn Intel Group conducted research and lobbied on behalf of Inovo BV, a Netherlands-based firm owned by K. Ekim Alptekin.

Among his many accolades, Alptekin is chairman of the Turkey-US Business Council (TAİK) and reportedly close to Turkish President Recep Tay­yip Erdogan. Flynn Intel Group’s description of the firm’s relationship with Alptekin include a meeting between himself, Flynn, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak – Erdogan’s son-in-law (the reported details of that meeting can be found here).

All of this work on behalf of Alptekin (and perhaps by extension the Turkish government) occurred while Flynn was serving as a military advisor to the Trump campaign and even after Election Day, which explains why this is such a critical story in Washington (Flynn’s firm was paid $530,000 for its work).

 If you haven’t read anything on Flynn’s Turkey connections, I suggest reading these pieces by Ashley ParkerNicholas Schmidle and Patrick Tucker that do a good job of connecting the dots.

What piqued my interest about the FARA documents were the assertions put forward by Alptekin’s attorneys (image available below). First, they argue that Mr. Alptekin and Inovo are not an agent of the Turkish government. Second, the lawyers explain that Inovo requested that Flynn’s firm produce a “film and a report” for a “private sector company in Israel that sought to export natural gas to Turkey.” In a March 10 article by Amberin Zaman, Alptekin added that, “he was bound by a nondisclosure clause in his contract with the regional energy company to not identify it by name — nor could he divulge the nature of its investment, which would potentially be ‘huge.'”

There aren’t that many Israeli energy companies; the only developers that Alptekin’s statements could possibly be referring to within this specific context are probably either Delek Group or Ratio Oil Exploration. And as reported by Israeli Channel 10’s international correspondent Nadav Eyal here, both have denied his claim.

Despite this, it appears that Alptekin doubled down on his account. As tweeted by Eyal (seemingly the only Israeli journalist tracking these developments):

What does this all mean? It is too early to say. As I have written elsewhere, Israel’s transition from total energy dependence to the development of a domestic energy industry has been wrought with complications. In contrast to states that have experienced the steady growth of a domestic energy industry and subsequently enacted legislation that would manage the role of that industry in the country’s overall economic and political structure, Israeli policies were outdated, official energy records strictly censored, and the government lacked familiarity with alternative models.

To make matters worse, the opaque manner by which negotiations between natural gas developers Delek Group and Noble Energy and the Israeli government were conducted stoked public fears of corruption and mismanagement. Faced with mounting criticism, the government had little choice but to incorporate these often-divergent civilian interests on issues such as taxation, environmental policy, regulation, and export law. As a result, Leviathan field’s planned production was delayed by several years. The original contract signed between Noble, Delek and the Israeli government underwent multiple revisions before a final framework agreement – that permitted the export of Leviathan’s gas to foreign markets – was finally adopted. How and with whom Israel chooses to export its natural gas remains largely unanswered.

One of the potential export routes for Israeli natural gas is via undersea pipeline to Turkey. I’ve written and tweeted quite a bit about how the prospect of energy cooperation wasn’t the solitary reason Israel and Turkey agreed to reconcile their differences in June 2016, however the Netanyahu government used it in order to legitimize rapprochement to the Israeli public. Not only did the Obama administration expend significant capital in order to bridge the gap between Israel and Turkey, there is also evidence that indicates that the US encouraged efforts to export Israeli natural gas via Turkey. Despite this, a pipeline deal has yet to be signed.

Did an Israeli energy company seek to indirectly influence US policy in order to increase the likelihood of securing an export contract with Turkey? These days, it feels like anything is possible, although I struggle to understand why an Israeli company would feel compelled to operate in such a circuitous manner. Supporting the Israeli energy industry’s growth is a rare point of bipartisanship in Washington – why the smoke and mirrors? Perhaps uncertainty over the future of US-Turkey relations under the next administration (Trump or Clinton) prompted Inovo’s hiring and Flynn’s hiring thereafter?

If Alptekin’s account is false, then why did offer DOJ this narrative? Was the “private sector company in Israel” a story designed to throw the US officials off the scent of something more scandalous (i.e. that he was operating on behalf of Erdogan)? If so, it was a poor alibi. And why, given his close relationship with Erdogan, would Alptekin intentionally complicate the Turkish government’s efforts to import Israeli gas?

There is something missing to this story, and it is quite likely that someone is withholding information. The questions, for the time being, remain whowhat, and why?

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey
  • Kevin_in_Chicago

    Might the purpose — or one purpose — of the Alptekin-Flynn connection have been to discover what US intelligence agencies knew about Turkey and how it might affect US-Turkey cooperation? Flynn had been “out of the loop” — but when did candidate Trump start receiving intel briefings? See Seymour Hersh’s article in London Review of Books for January 7, 2016, quoting Flynn:

    “Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’