by Robert Olson
The reestablishment of Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations has been bruited about for the past several months. Expectations increased when Dore Gold, the director of Israel’s foreign ministry, arrived in Istanbul on March 20 to retrieve the bodies of three Israelis who had been killed in a terrorist attack on March 19. Reportedly, full diplomatic relations could be restored soon.
The two countries severed diplomatic relations when Israeli commanders attacked and boarded the Blue (Mavi) Marmara, a ship belonging to Turkey’s Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), on May 31, 2010 while it was attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Nine Turks and one Turkish-American were killed. Israeli authorities stated that the incident was staged with the approval of Turkey’s Intelligence Agency (MIT) in order to strengthen Turkey’s relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and with Hamas in particular. Ambassadors were withdrawn, and full diplomatic relations have remained stalemated.
At the time of the incident, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were indeed trying to curry favor with the PA and Hamas in order to strengthen their Islamist credentials in largely Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East.
Tensions between the two countries grew after Erdogan clashed with Shimon Peres at Davos on January 29, 2009. During a bitter exchange between the two men, Erdogan demanded “one minute, please” from the moderator. He then said to Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” Erdogan was referring to the Israel-Hamas war of 2008-09 in which significant numbers of Palestinians and some Israelis were killed and wounded.
After the commencement of the “Arab Spring” in December 2010 in Tunisia, Erdogan visited both Tunisia and Egypt encouraging democracy and secularism. Turkey strongly supported Mohammad Morsi when he came to power in 2012 until his overthrow on July 3, 2013.
Morsi’s removal limited Turkey’s leverage in the civil war that broke out in Syria in March 2011. Erdogan, like Morsi, was a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turkish leader expected strong support from Morsi’s government and from the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan in removing Bashar al-Assad from power. Such a development would have allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to take a leading role in whatever government would prevail in Syria.
By the end of 2013 it was clear that Bashar al-Assad was not going to be toppled any time soon. By 2014 new geopolitical configurations were forming in the eastern Mediterranean. Syria and Iraq were failed and collapsed states. Whatever geopolitical configurations emerged in the eastern Mediterranean, Israel and Turkey would continue to be major players. Although Egypt is a large state and has also discovered large gas deposits in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the Mediterranean coast, its economic and political challenges are so great that it cannot challenge the power of Turkey and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean.
Since 2010 Israel has discovered two large gas fields—Tamar and Leviathan—in its EEZ that may have gas reserves of around 800 billion cubic meters, enough gas to last Israel for 40 or more years. These fields are now supplying more than half of Israel’s electricity needs.
Turkey is an energy-starved country and has not had much luck in finding significant amounts of oil or gas in the Mediterranean, Black, Marmara or Mediterranean Seas. Ankara’s rising tensions with Russia since Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet fighter in November 2015 increased Turkey’s efforts to access sources of energy other than Russian. Other sources available are from the Kurdistan Regional Government, Iran, and international markets. The Turkish economy produces a Gross National Product of around $800 billion a year, with great potential to grow much larger.
Turkey would like to participate with Israel, Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus in the transport of gas from the Tamar and Leviathan fields as well as from fields in Greece and Cyprus. The best outlets from these fields would be via Turkey, which would also benefit from the transport costs of carrying the gas to Europe in already existing pipelines.
It is in Turkey’s and Israel’s interest to restore full diplomatic relations in order to benefit from Israel’s gas fields as well as to cooperate more fully on security matters that effect both countries. The two countries already cooperate substantially on defense matters. Trade between them stood at $5.6 billion in 2015. In January 2016 Erdogan told reporters, “Israel is in need of a county like Turkey in the region. We have to admit that we also need Israel.”
Although the Blue Marmara incident and its aftermath still rankle, Ankara has indicated that it would acquiesce to the blockade of Gaza but wants access by sea or land in order to bring construction materials and other goods and services to the people in the territory. This would ensure ardent Muslim supporters of the AKP that the party still supports the Palestinian cause. Many of Erdogan’s policies, both domestic and foreign, are under attack and a good-will Israeli gesture would be welcomed.
Russia’s dispatch of aircraft, missiles, tanks, and 6-7,000 troops to Syria in September 2015 has slowed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Israel wants better relations with Turkey but not at the expense of worsening relations with Moscow, with which it has extensive ties. Israel is also concerned about what geopolitical configurations might emerge in Syria and in Iraq.
Turkey and Israel will likely contest for geopolitical advantage in Syria. Erdogan and the AKP are hoping to use the 2.7 million Syria refugees in Turkey to expand geo-economic influence in northern Syria. On the other hand, Israel is strengthening its hold over the Golan Heights and solidifying its military and economic relations with Jordan. Within a decade, gas from Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields may well be available in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan.
On March 27, Israel’s High Count of Justice struck down an agreement regarding the Leviathan gas field between the government and project developers headed by Noble Energy, a Texas-based energy company partnered with Israel’s Delek Group. The High Court of Justice objected to the part of the agreement “that prohibits changes to regulations affecting the project for ten years.” The resulting settlement will not likely affect a potential gas pipeline from Cyprus to Turkey. This is the opposite of what Turkey, the AKP, and Erdogan wanted to achieve at Davos in January 2010.