Are Turkey and Israel poised to thaw icy relations?

It has been reported that once the parties sign the final agreement, ambassadors will return to both countries

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Changing strategic dynamics in the Middle East may lead to a surprising reconciliation between two countries, Israel and Turkey, which were driven to the brink of hot conflict five years ago after Israeli troops raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in international waters.

A preliminary agreement to normalize bilateral relations was allegedly reached on Dec. 17 by top-level officials at a meeting in Switzerland, while the details of the final agreement are still being worked out, according to Israeli and Turkish media reports.

The agreement coincides with a politically hard atmosphere in the region with the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) radically transforming the regional calculations of both countries that share borders with Syria.

On Dec. 14, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold announced reporters that “Israel has always strived for stable relations with Turkey and is constantly examining ways to achieve that goal.”

"This normalization process would be good for us, Israel, Palestine and the entire region. The region definitely needs this. We need to consider the interests of the people of the region and introduce peace,” he also said.

This optimistic tone has been echoed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who stated on the same day that an agreement could be good for the region, followed by Omer Celik, the spokesperson of the government, who said in a press meeting on Dec. 20: “Israel is a friend of Turkey”.

The Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May 2010, where nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandoes, exacerbated the already-tense relations between Turkey and Israel, with Ankara expelling the Israeli ambassador and recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

It has been reported that once the parties sign the final agreement, the ambassadors will return to both countries.

The long-awaited formal apology from Israel after the flotilla raid came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2013 with a phone call under a U.S.-brokered arrangement.

According to the reconciliation pact, Israel is expected to establish a special fund for the compensation for the families of the victims, and Ankara would then retract all its legal claims against Israeli officials over this attack.

Nimrod Goren, founder and chairman of Mitvim (The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies) agrees that an agreement between Israel and Turkey, if reached, will create a more favorable regional environment for both countries.

“It will enable Israel and Turkey to renew their official strategic dialogue and coordination, to seek joint interests in the changing region, and to deal with their differences in a more effective diplomatic manner,” Goren told Al Arabiya News.

As another precondition for the thaw between the two countries, Turkey demands from Israel to lift Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip, but this matter is still considered by Israel as a national security requirement.

According to Goren, while Israel is not willing to lift its embargo over Gaza, it does seem to be willing to grant Turkey a special role regarding Gaza and its reconstruction.

“For Turkey to be able to be a more effective player on Israeli-Palestinian issues, including Gaza, it must have open lines of communication to Israel, and to increase the level of trust between the countries. Turkey may also be able to contribute to efforts for Palestinian unification, due to its contact with Hamas,” he said.

President Erdogan met on Dec. 19 with the leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, Khaled Meshaal, allegedly to be briefed about the latest developments in the region.

The next step for a final normalization deal will occur on the energy front, with Turkey to buy gas from Israel’s offshore oil fields especially due to the deterioration of its relations with its main gas provider, Russia. Another cooperation avenue would be over the laying of a natural gas pipeline via Turkey to export Israeli gas to Europe.

Taking the positive atmosphere between both countries one step further, a landmark event took place in Istanbul on Dec. 13, where for the first time in Turkish history the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, was celebrated by the country’s Jewish community with an open public ceremony.

Ilker Ayturk, an expert on Israeli-Turkey relations from Bilkent University in Ankara, said a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey would no doubt be a game-changer in the Middle East of great magnitude, with repercussions reaching as far as Russia and the Balkans.

However, Ayturk is skeptical about whether the current negotiations will actually lead to a final agreement of normalization for the bilateral relations, due to some structural problems.

He said: “This so-called rapprochement is not part of a well-thought, long-term Turkish foreign policy strategy, but, an ad hoc, last minute response to an emergency situation.”

According to Ayturk, “No Turkish government can fully restore bilateral relations back to its pre-2008 level, after Mavi Marmara, not when the public opinion is dead set against it.”

“Secondly, although Erdogan is ideologically ill-disposed toward Israel, he is a pragmatist at heart and might have contemplated initiating a thaw in bilateral relations, when everything else in Turkey’s Middle East policy is falling apart,” Ayturk told Al Arabiya News.

“But even he will have a hard time selling this to his party,” he added.

Ayturk doesn't expect Israel to lift the Gaza blockade, especially due to the fact that this issue also involves Egypt.

“Of course, there could be endless diplomatic acrobatics to hide this fact, such as designating Turkey as chief supplier of foodstuff and other goods to Gaza, but then who would explain this arrangement to Egypt?” he asked.

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