Turkey-Israel Rapprochement: Business as Usual

On June 26, Turkey and Israel announced the end of a diplomatic row reached a head in 2010, after eight Turks and a Turkish-American citizen were killed on an aid flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, bound for Gaza. Soon after the incident, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel, and within six months had expelled the Israeli ambassador to Turkey and suspended all military agreements with the nation. Negotiations over an agreement under which diplomatic ties could resume had stalled for some time over one sticking point: the Turkish demand to end the blockade on Gaza.

Speaking to MENASource, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East Senior Fellow Aaron Stein explains that while much of the reporting on the agreement indicates that the Israel negotiators emerged with an advantage, Turkey has long taken advantage of workaround to the Gaza blockade. He describes a “special status” for Turkey in which goods are exported to Gaza via the Israeli port city of Ashdod before being sent to Gaza. He also points to reports in the wake of the agreement that a Turkish ship generating electricity for Gaza may be docked in Israel, as well as plans to build a desalination plant, and a hospital.

Stein also cautions against the temptation to paint this as a major reset in Turkish foreign policy. “There are significant hurdles moving forward in terms of how Turkey will conduct statecraft in the Middle East, regardless of its return to diplomatic normalcy with a lot of these countries,” he says. “The suspicion of Turkey amongst many countries in the Middle East—Egypt, Jordan, the UAE—remains very high. There’s a lot of work still to be done on both sides to repair a lot of the suspicions that have taken place in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Israel is really a footnote to all of the things that need to happen to return to normalcy in the region.”

Read the rest of the interview with Stein below:

Q: What caused the rift between Turkey and Israel?
Aaron Stein:
Everybody points to the actual breaking point of the relationship after the Mavi Marmara incident, but it had been long in the making for the relationship to collapse. It really stems from a change in Turkey’s attitudes towards Hamas, becoming more overt in its support for the group, and also their strong objection to Operation Cast Lead in 2009. There was a strong sense in Ankara that its previous efforts to try to play both sides—both Israelis and Palestinians and the Israelis and the Syrians at that time—to act as a mediator, and the close relationship between Israel and Turkey at that time, were actually hurting Ankara both in the wider Arab world and amongst its own populous, who were growing more and more concerned about Israeli actions in Gaza.

Q: What exactly does this deal say?
We haven’t seen the actual text of the agreement yet, but what it does is it creates the avenue for the two countries to resume diplomatic ties. They pulled ambassadors from each other’s countries, and Turkey put in place three conditions that Israel had to meet in order to restore diplomatic ties: to apologize for the Mavi Marmara incident, to pay compensation, and to lift the Gaza blockade. The first two were met relatively quickly; the final one has been a challenge in how do you frame an agreement where both sides can claim victory without actually recognizing their objective? The Israeli objective being to keep Gaza cut off, and the Turks to say that we have lifted the embargo.

Q: Most reports indicate that Israel did not agree to that demand. Is that not the case?
AS: It’s a matter of interpretation. It’s a diplomatic dance. The Turks can go home and claim victory and Israelis can go home and claim victory also. Who’s right? I don’t think it matters. This creates the vehicle to return ambassadors to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and then Ankara. Yes, there will be Turkish aid, and there is Turkish aid going into Gaza already. I think this is just more overt and solidifies what is already the status quo. It creates more vehicles for large-scale Turkish involvement in Gaza.

Q: What is the significance of the deal?
The significance is that two sides are turning the page after six years of very hostile relations. With that said, within the six years there haven’t been diplomatic ties, economic ties flourished. Trade between Israel and Turkey was not affected, in fact it went up. You still had very quiet Israeli participation on certain Turkish defense projects on a subcontractor level. At the official level it says 0 on the exports of defense goods from Israel to Turkey, which is true, but certain components of things in Turkish products were made in Israel. So you had that sort of maintenance to the relationship.

Q: So going forward, there’s no additional impact on the economy?
The agreement does allow for movement on the natural gas issue. The Israelis have this large natural gas field that they’ve uncovered— Leviathan. There’s been long talk that the only economically viable way to export that gas is through a pipeline to Turkey. There are a lot of concurrent political problems that will prevent that in the near term, mainly because that field is shared with Cyprus. Any pumping of Cypriot natural gas would have to require settlement on the self-declared state of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey. Internationally it is recognized as part of Cyprus. A pipeline would have to go through the Cypriots’ exclusive economic zone in order to get to Turkey, so, before you could even begin to see any benefits of a potential natural gas cooperation, a settlement of the Cyprus issue is necessary. There has been positive movement on that, but until you get to the final end game there, you can’t begin to see the immediate benefits of a natural gas relationship between Israel and Turkey.

Q: Is there any indication as to how this news has been received in Turkey?
They’ve been softening the electorate for quite some time now. They told us last week, at least through coordinated leaks, that the agreement would be reached on Sunday June 26. There has been talk for a very long time that the basic framework of the agreement was agreed to. There were some sticking points—again about the Gaza blockade—but more or less the two sides had agreed on the pathway to go forward. I don’t think it was a major shock to anybody in Turkey or Israel. I think domestically, a recent leadership change in Turkey, with the ousting of former prime minister [Ahmet] Davutoglu has created some political leeway for [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to move forward with this because he can blame all the foreign policy problems that have taken place in recent years in Turkey on Davutoglu, because he was previously the foreign minister. I think, for most Turks, they vote on bread and butter issues—national security and economy. The relationship with Israel doesn’t really factor in when people go to the polls. I think this will be a hot button topic in Turkey domestically for a week or two, and then it will fade in to the background, just routine statecraft as the country moves on and focuses on other issues that the electorate cares more about.

Q: Is there any consequence for the region as a whole? How would this impact the rest of the Middle East?
AS: I think the biggest impact is just on one country in particular—Egypt. The country now becomes an outlier in how the Gaza issue is dealt with. Even if you have Israel allowing special status, or at least more overt Turkish participation in Gaza, the one country that sticks out there like a sore thumb is Egypt. This leads a lot of people to conclude that Egypt must be the next card to fall in Turkish efforts to repair its relations with all the regional states. That could possibly happen. The Saudis have been pushing for private mediation for a very long time, since March 2015, between the Turks and the Egyptians. But we’ll see how that plays out. I think the region is to be determined. The driving thing really is Syria. A lot of people are linking this to Syria in terms of the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, but I don’t think the impact will be felt really all that much in Syria.

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Image: Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses the media in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)