For two of America’s closest allies in the Middle East to bury the hatchet, reinstate ambassadors, and resume senior-level dialogue would surely be a boost for U.S strategic interests in the region. It would contribute to greater cohesion in dealing with the Syrian crisis, for example, and in the fight against the Islamic State.
A quick recap
Let’s first recall how the crisis between the two former strategic allies developed, when in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident (May 31, 2010)—resulting in the deaths of 9 Turks—Turkey recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv and suspended nearly all defense and strategic ties with Israel. Israel also called back its ambassador in Ankara. At the time, Turkey set three conditions for resuming dialogue with Israel: a formal apology, compensation for the families of the victims, and a removal of Israel’s Gaza naval blockade. Relations came to a practical standstill, except in the economic sphere: trade between the two countries exceeded $5 billion in 2014, an unprecedented level.
Israel formally apologized to Turkey in 2013 and in 2014 committed to paying compensation to the families of the victims. But the Gaza naval blockade has not been lifted. Turkey further demands greater access and presence in Gaza. For its part, Israel demands that Turkey not allow Hamas operative Salah al-Arouri, who resides in Istanbul, to coordinate terrorist operations against Israeli targets in the West Bank. Israel also wants Ankara to pressure Hamas to return the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 war in Gaza.
Since the flotilla incident, Turkey was not always convinced that repairing relations with Israel actually served its interests. As the Arab Spring unfolded, Turkey hoped to assume a leadership role in the Arab and Muslim worlds—having good relations with Israel did not serve that purpose. And as Turkey went through periods of some unrest in the political arena (whether during the Gezi Park protests in 2013 or the hotly contested local and national elections), many in the ruling AKP party saw restoring relations with Israel as a potential liability in domestic politics. Israel, for its part, was mostly in a reactive mode: sometimes it tried to initiate contacts with Turkey, and sometimes it denounced Turkish anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The times they are a-changing
Now, however, new developments have prompted Turkey to seek a rapprochement with Israel. One key factor is the crisis in the Turkish-Russian relationship—in the aftermath of the suspension of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline project, Israeli natural gas is viewed as a possible substitute in the medium term for some of Turkey’s natural gas imports from Russia. And as the impact of the war in Syria on Turkey (including the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks) has made clear to Turkey that it must enhance its intelligence capabilities, and Israel can help. Israel, meanwhile, is searching for an export destination for its natural gas (Israeli Energy Minister Steinitz stated recently that “Turkey is a huge market for gas…they need our gas and we need this market”). Israeli leaders also know that resuming a political and military dialogue with Turkey may contribute to a more comprehensive view of the challenges Israel faces in the region.
Five years after Israel’s formal request to open a representation office at NATO’s Brussels headquarters, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last month that NATO has approved the Israeli request. Turkey had opposed it, blocking progress, since NATO decisions are adopted by consensus. In a move seen signaling a thawing of relations, Turkey recently removed its objection to Israel’s request, paving the way to NATO’s decision. Israel continues to be a partner in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue along with Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco.
At a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is attempting to strengthen his country’s regional strategic position and enhance its economic opportunities, a rapprochement with Israel makes sense. Bilateral negotiations are in the final stretch, as they have reached a compromise on the complex issue of Gaza and Hamas (Turkey will reportedly not demand the full lifting of Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza, settling for greater access and presence in Gaza. Israel will acquiesce to continued Hamas political activities in Turkey and will not demand the removal of Hamas operative al-Arouri from Turkey, but will get Turkish assurances that al-Arouri’s involvement in terror will cease.)
Fixing the troubled Turkish-Israeli relationship has been a mighty task for senior negotiators on both sides over the last few years, and although an agreement seems around the corner, the experience of recent years suggests that there can be last minute surprises. Israel’s Prime Minister had to jump over several hurdles, holding off pressure from Russia and Egypt not to seek rapprochement with Turkey, and ensuring support of the deal with Turkey from his newly appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a known opponent of a deal. On the Turkish side, it seems that President Erdoğan wants a rapprochement with Israel, and feels that he needs it. This is tied directly to the Turkish domestic arena: Erdoğan has recently completed his consolidation of power, ousting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and paving the way to the election of his trusted confidant, Binali Yıldırım, as prime minister. In addition, his new allies—the military-judicial establishment—are in favor of mending ties with Israel. One caveat is that Erdoğan’s top priority is establishing a presidential system, and so if he feels at any point that reaching an agreement with Israel will somehow undermine those efforts, he may opt for maintaining the status quo.
Dan Arbell is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, and a scholar-in-residence with the department of history in the College of Arts & Sciences at American University in Washington, D.C