‘Ankara–Tel Aviv’ Orient Express: Course Set For Rapprochement? – Analysis


By Kerim Has*

Turkey’s foreign policy has been on the rise this past month. Riding the wave of de-escalation in the Russia–Turkey dialogue, relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv are also being resumed after an almost six-year break. One should not forget that deterioration began in 2009, when Israel strengthened its positions in the Gaza Strip and soon started an open intervention. Later, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Recep Erdogan delivered his famous speech, later dubbed “one minute talk,” where he sharply criticized the actions of the Israeli leadership at the time. Further escalation happened in May 2010 following the incident[i] with the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship: as it attempted to break the Israeli blockade and deliver a humanitarian cargo to the Gaza Strip, Israel killed 10 Turkish citizens. Afterwards, political and diplomatic relations between the two countries were ceased.

Ankara has put forward three conditions which, should the Israeli side agree, could result in the de-escalation of the bilateral relations crisis: an official apology; compensation to the families of the deceased; and, most importantly, lifting the naval, land and air blockade of the Gaza Strip that has been in effect since 2006. In 2013, under U.S. President Barack Obama’s mediation, Israel agreed[ii] to offer a formal apology to Turkey and pay compensation. This may be viewed as the first step towards normalizing relations between the two countries, but questions concerning the sums to be paid to the victims and the lifting of the blockade were never even on the agenda.

On the other hand, Israel set a series of demands of its own, with which Ankara could not comply at that time. One was to abolish the prosecution of Israeli soldiers whose actions had resulted in the deaths of Turkish citizens. Essentially, it would ensure their immunity on an international level. At the same time, Tel Aviv could not lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip completely. Moreover, Israel insisted that the Turkish leadership significantly cut the number of the Hamas representatives (Israel views Hamas as a military threat) in Turkey and stop all contacts with the group as soon as possible. Obviously, the domestic political climate in both states, as well as the foreign political situation, did not allow Ankara and Tel Aviv to make mutual concessions. Until 2010, political and military contacts between the two countries had been developing successfully, but dropped off sharply that year. Israel-Turkey economic relations, however, were on the rise, and the trade volume grew many times over. What is more, it is common knowledge that, since 2014, the oil that fills the new pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan is transported[iii] via Turkey and its ports (Ceyhan) and on into Israel. Such developments prove once again that neither country is interested in severing ties completely. And the results of the parliamentary elections held in Turkey on November 1, 2015, where the ruling party received nearly 50 per cent of the votes, allowed Ankara to adhere to a bolder foreign policy, including a rapprochement with Tel Aviv.

Normalization of Relations or Forced Cooperation?

It is apparent that the events in Syria and the Middle East played a key role in defining a new foreign policy, not only for countries directly connected with the region, but also for the non-regional players, primarily the West, Russia, and the United States. In this context, Turkey and Israel are countries that are involved in the conflict to some extent, and their domestic political situation depends directly on foreign policy decisions. Thus, both sides have gradually come to realize that looking for common ground is a necessity.

First, Turkey and Israel are two non-Arab countries in the Middle East whose positions and actions largely determine the development of the Middle East as a whole. In many ways, this served as a starting point for the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv. At the same time, both Turkey and Israel have long been targets for large-scale terrorist attacks. That is why a joint fight against armed and radical groups such as ISIS could significantly enhance possible bilateral cooperation. The lack of statehood and growing destabilization in many Middle Eastern countries force[iv] Ankara and Tel Aviv to look for common ground.

At the same time, it should be remembered that the involvement of the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces in Syria ran contrary to Ankara’s regional interests and thus afforded an opportunity for a renewed dialogue between Turkey and Israel. Tehran’s nuclear agreement (Р5+1), which opened a new page in Iran developing its regional influence and strengthening its international stance, also contributed to a further rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Neither Turkey, nor Israel favour Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, and therefore, making it necessary for Ankara and Tel Aviv to cooperate. Although the question remains open as to which party will derive greater profits from this rapprochement, the renewed dialogue is nothing but a reflection of Realpolitik. Certainly, this rapprochement cannot fully resolve the crises and disagreements, of which Turkey and Israel had had their fair share even before the Syrian crisis, but it could minimize the increasing risks of destabilization processes.

Second, Ankara’s foreign policy largely contributed to isolating Turkey from regional processes, while non-regional actors such as Russia, the United States and western countries have now joined in. A significant cooling of Russia-Turkey relations was a trigger to overcoming the Israel–Turkey crisis. In a typical move, in May 2016, Turkey revised[v] its position concerning the right to veto the opening of the Israeli office at NATO’s Brussels headquarters. For a long time, Ankara was against such cooperation.

It should also be noted that, although officially, cooperation between Israel and NATO was not particularly productive, bilateral cooperation with Washington has compensated for this. Moreover, as is well known, Turkey has been going through a period of strained relations with its western partners of late, including the United States. For Ankara, Tel Aviv has become a bridge for improving dialogue with Washington due to Israel’s powerful lobby in Washington.

Third, despite the political premises for improving relations, energy is also a very significant factor. The energy situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has changed drastically over the past five or six years. Geological explorations for new deposits are under way. Ten years ago, discussions focused on the possibilities of exporting Russian gas to Israel, and now Tel Aviv is concerned with selling its own gas to Europe, thus essentially becoming a competitor for Moscow. Among the largest new gas fields[vi] are Tamar (discovered in 2009) and Leviathan (discovered in 2010).

Later, taking into account the impossibility of finding a consensus in the Turkey–Israel dialogue, Tel Aviv was prepared to sell its gas to Egypt, which also had political disagreements with Ankara. The rapprochement between Cairo and Tel Aviv was as disadvantageous for Ankara as Iran’s growing influence in the region. Thus, Turkey was forced to soften its stance in order to prevent further rapprochement between states Ankara had conflicts with. However, in 2015, Egypt conducted its own geological exploration, which resulted in the discovery of its own shelf deposits. Israel was forced to look north and west to export its gas. Some suppose that had geological exploration revealed large gas fields in Israel during the Turkey–Israel crisis, the Mavi Marmara incident would not have had such grave aftermath. However, history knows no “ifs.”

Israel’s rapprochement with Cyprus and Greece also irritated Ankara due to the territorial proximity of the states and Ankara’s clear interests in that area. The possibility of exporting natural gas into those countries seemed attractive to Tel Aviv, yet constructing a new pipeline branch into Greece and Cyprus was not financially sound, since neither country consumed sufficient amounts of energy commodities to meet Israel’s export plans.

It is also obvious that the Eastern Mediterranean is an unstable region. Territorial conflicts and questions of the water border jurisdiction involve a large number of risks, and to minimize them, Tel Aviv would still have to negotiate with Ankara. At the same time, transporting Israeli gas to the European market via Turkey is more advantageous from a financial point of view. On the other hand, a crisis in Russia–Turkey relations had a negative impact on the possibilities of diversifying Turkey’s energy sources, which enhanced the role of such gas exporting countries as Azerbaijan, Qatar, Iraq and Israel.

Fourth, other than Turkey, Israel has also recently experienced international pressure as a result of its actions in Palestine.[vii] The Iranian factor also irritates Tel Aviv, because Iran has gained the status of a significant regional player and enjoys the support of western countries, Russia and China. The nuclear agreement also contributed to the fact that countries that had previously been unable to find common ground started to talk about the possibilities of cooperation. This is what happened between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, both Israel and Turkey believe that, with time, Tehran will enhance its positions in Syria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries, which is not in the best interests of Ankara and Tel Aviv.

Who Sets the Terms of the Agreements?

As we have already noted, normalization of the Turkey-Israel dialogue required that Tel Aviv comply with three demands, and the main demand – a complete lifting of the Gaza Strip blockade – has never been implemented. Still, in late June 2016, the parties were able to reach a consensus and sign an agreement giving Ankara the right to ship humanitarian cargo for the Gaza strip to the Israeli port of Ashdod on the condition that such cargo is cleared by the Israeli authorities and the contents are inspected upon arrival. At the same time, an agreement was achieved on constructing a power plant in Gaza jointly with Germany. Turkish contractors are also ready to build a hospital and water treatment facilities.

Essentially, the agreement returns both parties to the time period before the Mavi Marmara incident.[viii] Israel puts forward the same demands as before, and Turkey believes that it can extenuate the blockade. Ankara agreed to Tel Aviv’s demands that the prosecution of Israeli soldiers who had caused the death of Turkish citizens be stopped and the number of Hamas offices in Turkey be reduced. The remaining offices will have to play a diplomatic role. It was a kind of symbolic gesture on the part of the Turkish leadership towards Israel.

Despite the progress in the Turkey-Israel dialogue, there is a risk that relations could deteriorate due to the unpredictability of developments in the Gaza Strip and in Israel-Palestine relations. Moreover, as is well known, Egypt has recently initiated its own blockade of the Gaza Strip as a result of the close ties between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is therefore apparent that in the nearest future, in order to develop a more effective foreign policy and resolve domestic political issues Turkey will have to improve its relations with both Tel Aviv and Cairo.

Note: This piece first appeared in Russian language on the web site of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) on 5 July 2016. http://russiancouncil.ru/inner/?id_4=7888#top-content

*Kerim Has is an expert at the Center for Eurasian Studies of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). He is also a teaching scholar at the Moscow State University. His main research areas are Russian domestic and foreign policy, Central Asia and Caucasus, security issues and energy politics in Eurasia.

[i] “Mavi Marmara: Why did Israel stop the Gaza flotilla?”, 27 June 2016, (http://www.bbc.com/news/10203726).
[ii] Kadri Gursel, “Israel Apologizes; Turkey Steps Back”, 25 March 2013, (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/erdgoan-acceptance-netanyahu-apology-syria.html).
[iii] “Israel accepts 1st delivery of disputed Kurdish pipeline oil”, 22 June 2014, (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/israel-accepts-1st-delivery-of-disputed-kurdish-pipeline-oil.aspx?pageID=238&nID=68104&NewsCatID=348).
[iv] Osman Bahadır Dinçer & Büşra N. Özgüler, “Krizden Normalleşmeye Türkiye-İsrail İlişkileri: Neden Şimdi?”, Uluslararası Stratejik Araştırmalar Kurumu, USAK Analiz №3, 2016, (http://www.usak.org.tr/_files/2862016181906-NP9GKYGKN5.pdf).
[v] “Israil otkrıvayet predstavitelstvo v NATO: «vajnıy shag k ukrepleniyu bezopasnosti»”, 4 May 2016, (http://news.israelinfo.co.il/politics/61641).
[vi] “Israelsky gas dlya Evropı: pochemy «Gazpromu» ne nujno bespokoitsya”, 26 November 2014, (http://slon.ru/world/izrailskiy_gaz_dlya_evropy_pochemu_gazprom_mozhet_ne_grustit-1188178.xhtml).
[vii] Osman Bahadır Dinçer & Büşra N. Özgüler, “Krizden Normalleşmeye Türkiye-İsrail İlişkileri: Neden Şimdi?”, Uluslararası Stratejik Araştırmalar Kurumu, USAK Analiz №3, 2016, (http://www.usak.org.tr/_files/2862016181906-NP9GKYGKN5.pdf).
[viii] Ibid.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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