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Darkening skies in the Middle East bring Turkey and Israel back together

The six years of estrangement between the two countries could have been averted in the first place

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Now that Turkey and Israel have signed a reconciliation agreement, following six years of a deep rift, the most perplexing aspect is as to why has it taken so long for both countries to come to their political and strategic senses? The agreement, announced simultaneously in Ankara by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and in Rome by his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, ended an unnecessary and manufactured rupture between two countries whose common interests largely outweigh potential conflicts of interest.

The very next day a series of suicide bombers hit Istanbul’s Ataturk airport killing dozens of people and injuring many more. Though the terrorist attack was carried out by militants linked to ISIS and was unrelated to the agreement, it nevertheless sent a reminder that real enmity to both countries lies elsewhere.

The six years of estrangement between the two countries could have been averted in the first place, or at least resolved a long time ago. It had more to do with populist leaders on both sides, Monsieurs Erdogan and Netanyahu, who squared to each other even after the entire region was engulfed in its worse protracted crisis in modern history, to the detriment of both their countries.

Whereas the agreement, reached after years of on-off negotiations, revolved around the tragic outcome of the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla that set sail from Turkey, the geo-political implications go much wider. In the botched Israeli attempt to stop the convoy from reaching the Gaza strip with nine Turkish nationals on board the Mavi Marmara were killed, and a number of Israeli soldiers were badly injured.

In the aftermath of this tragic event, diplomatic relations were downgraded and the Israeli ambassador was expelled from Ankara. Despite clear strategic, political and economic interest as impetuses to patch up relations sooner rather than later, national pride and galvanising constituencies at home led to a prolonged impasse.

More than three years ago during a visit of President Obama to Israel, he assertively prompted a phone conversation between the Turkish and Israeli leaders in which Netanyahu apologized for the killing aboard the Turkish vessel. However, Turkey had a further list of demands, and Israel sought full normalization of relations and containing Hamas activities in Turkey in return for accepting the majority of these demands.

Both countries’ international standing has suffered considerably as a consequence of their governments’ less than reasonable behavior on an array of issues and this agreement can only help improve their image

Yossi Mekelberg

The energy dimension

For Israel there is not only a political incentive to accept the conditions of this demand, but also an economic one, especially in regards to the energy sector. The Israeli newspaper Globes revealed that the rapprochement between the two countries will probably lead to a deal on exporting natural gas from Israel’s newly developed offshore fields to Turkey.

According to the same newspaper, Turkish energy companies are interested in half of the Leviathan field capacity for domestic consumption and in using it as a hub for exporting Israeli gas to the rest of Europe. Considering the tensions between Turkey and Russia since the downing of the Russian military jet in November last year, it comes as no surprise that it looks for alternative energy suppliers.

Netanyahu’s change of heart in accepting most of the Turkish demands, aroused suspicions among some of the country’s opposition members. They suggest that he agreed to the terms to help his cronies in the energy industry, who stand to benefit from the reconciliation between the two countries.

Another source of criticism came from the extreme right of the government, including two ministers in his cabinet, who voted against the agreement and accused Netanyahu of conceding too much and gaining very little in return. There has been a growing recognition in Israel that using force to stop the flotilla and raiding the MV Marmara were foolish mistakes.

Allowing a humanitarian convoy to reach Gaza may have resulted in some triumphant welcome in Gaza by the Hamas and some propaganda victory, but not more than that. The damage, however, caused by rushing into using excessive force in the capturing of the MV Marmara, was immense in terms of international condemnation and in harming relations with Turkey.

Last week Israel eventually agreed to pay $20 million towards compensating the families of the victims. Turkey is also gaining recognition as a main benefactor of Gaza by being permitted, with almost immediate effect, its first shipment of 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid. Furthermore, Israel gave its consent for Turkey to build a hospital, water desalination facility and power station in Gaza, to tackle some of the most acute hardships Gazan people are facing.

In return Israel gains both an opportunity to re-build its relations with Turkey, and an easing of the hardships suffered by the Gazan people, which most of the Israeli security establishment agrees would serve Israeli interests as well. It is, as a matter of fact, the Hamas that opposes it because there is no commitment to lift the blockade all together, and because it is in the organisation’s interest for the rift between Israel and Turkey to remain intact.

With the agreement that Turkey would end its claim on indicting Israeli soldiers who killed Turkish citizens, this removed another hurdle to resolving this toxic dispute. Both countries are interested in normalization and tackling the challenges posed by lethal extremism in the region. Relieving the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is in Israeli interest as much as anyone else’s, let alone any improvement in the dire conditions of the people there is crucial, even if the horizon for a political solution is currently bleak.

Both countries’ international standing has suffered considerably as a consequence of their governments’ less than reasonable behavior on an array of issues and this agreement can only help improve their image in the search for new allies and in the renewing of old ones.

The real test of the new agreement is in its implementation and in the ability of two volatile leaderships in Ankara and Jerusalem to learn the lesson from the sorry story that led to this rift in the first place.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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