Are Israel and Turkey rebuilding ties behind closed doors?
Turkish-Israeli relations were severely damaged in 2010 over the Gaza-bound, Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid flotilla
Turkey has started reconciliation talks with Israel, Israeli newspaper Haaretz has recently reported.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed holding secret meetings, telling reporters in Ankara: "These meetings are not new. Expert-level talks have been held between the two countries for a while. The ball is now in Israel’s court."
He added that Israel’s internal politics have delayed the process so far, and Turkey has been expecting to normalize relations for a long time.
Turkish-Israeli relations were severely damaged in 2010 over the Gaza-bound, Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid flotilla, when Israeli commandos killed in international waters eight Turkish citizens and an American of Turkish origin.
With the two countries engaging since then in a war of words, the Israeli ambassador was expelled from Ankara in Sept. 2011, while Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in 2010.
In parallel with second-track diplomacy between the parties to reach a deal, an Israeli apology to the ship victims - brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama - came in March 2013 by phone.
The negotiations that restarted afterward led to a draft agreement between Israel and Turkey that included reparations to the families of the victims.
However, the deal, whose approval by Turkey is conditional upon Israeli signature, has not been signed yet by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In August last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited the Israeli chargé d’affaires to Turkish Victory Day celebrations and they shook hands, which was seen as a highly symbolic step toward rapprochement.
Ozdem Sanberk, a retired ambassador who represented Turkey on the U.N. panel investigating the Mavi Marmara raid, said accelerating these meetings and disclosing them to the public just weeks after parliamentary elections in Turkey is significant.
“It seems that Israelis foresee a shift in Turkey’s foreign policy paradigms as a result of the elections that force the ruling AK Party to form a governing coalition with another party,” Sanberk told Al Arabiya News.
“Contrary to widespread claims, second-track diplomacy never ceased. It always continued behind closed doors,” he added.
Sanberk said if diplomatic ties are restored soon, it would be a stepping stone toward both countries ending their longstanding regional isolation.
Currently, Turkey has no ambassadors in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Libya or Yemen, either due to security concerns or heightened diplomatic tensions.
In September, the U.N. General Assembly is expected to recognize the state of Palestine. The Vatican became the 135th nation to recognize it in May, heavily disappointing Israel.
Gabriel Mitchell, coordinator of the Israel & Turkey project at Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, says both countries want to bolster their regional standing as the June 30 deadline for a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 approaches, and as the disintegration of Syria and Iraq continues.
“These negotiations are taking place only a week after Israeli and Saudi officials acknowledged that their countries were engaged in dialogue,” Mitchell told Al Arabiya News.
He said the primary sticking point between Israel and Turkey remained the future of Gaza and the ongoing blockade of the Palestinian territory.
“Erdogan has remained steadfast in his support for Hamas, to the point where Palestinians wounded during last summer’s [Gaza] conflict were transported to Turkey in order to receive medical care,” Mitchell said.
He added that if Israeli and Turkish officials can devise a means to alleviate some of the humanitarian and economic strains on Gaza - such as opening a seaport - this would almost assuredly lead to a normalization of diplomatic ties.
“However, in order to realize this opportunity, both sides need to commit to serious dialogue, and have assurances from Hamas that [it] won’t interfere in this process,” Mitchell said.
Louis Fishman, assistant professor at Brooklyn College and an analyst on Turkish-Israeli relations, says the timing of the secret meetings has much more to do with forming a general agreement on Syria.
“Both sides understand that it is crucial to jointly work on ensuring a stable future in the country that they both share a border with,” Fishman told Al Arabiya News.
He said if Turkey and Israel embark on serious confidence-building steps, and as long as Israelis work toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians, joint energy projects such as natural gas pipelines are possible.
“If Turkey does meet Israel half way, Israel will need to demonstrate that it is serious about restarting negotiations with the Palestinians,” Fishman added.
Since last year, Israel and Turkey have been discussing building a sub-sea pipeline from Israel’s Leviathan gas field to Turkey that would give Israel access to Turkish and European energy markets by 2023. However, ongoing violence in Gaza has scuppered progress.