The regional calculus of Turkish-Israeli reconciliation
It took Turkey and Israel nearly six years to turn the page on the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. While the timing cannot be more significant, there are questions about the regional effect of this rapprochement and the calculus behind the simultaneous shift in Turkish and Israeli policies aimed at rearranging their strategic postures in the Middle East.
The elements of the reconciliation agreement were set soon after the flotilla crisis: an apology from Israel, $20 million compensation for Turkish victims and impunity for Israeli soldiers involved in the raid.
National pride and domestic politics stood in the way of sealing the deal but the regional calculus of both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has evolved in the past two years.
While Netanyahu has a stable political environment at home to continue realigning Israel’s regional interests, Erdogan will be looking inward to address the repercussions of the recent failed coup in Turkey. However, as both sides renewed commitment to this reconciliation process after the coup attempt, two crucial areas of interest show how difficult is for them to cooperate: Gaza Strip and Syria.
Gaza was a contentious issue in the reconciliation talks. Netanyahu views it as a national security priority and Erdogan made it a cornerstone of his appeal to an increasingly anti- Israel public in Turkey. The pale compromise was for Hamas to continue to operate in Turkey as a political movement with Ankara committing to prevent any Hamas activity against Israeli assets on Turkish soil. In return, Israel would allow Turkey to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza (after Israeli inspection).
Netanyahu is seeking to reinvent old policy parameters towards the Palestinians: reviving Egypt’s role as a go-between with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and using Turkey as to communicate with Hamas. This would give Netanyahu more control over diplomacy and will subsequently sideline any French or US initiative to revive the peace process.
While this arrangement might further stabilise the situation in Gaza, it would remain a thorny issue with Ankara, particularly if Hamas and Iran rekindle their coordination and set new confrontation rules. Even though Turkey is gaining influence in Gaza, the agreement with Israel will test its relations with Hamas.
In Syria, there is a much different strategic environment as both Turkey and Israel border the war-torn country. Israeli involvement in Syria has mostly been limited to targeting Hezbollah’s efforts to build military capabilities in the Golan Heights, while Turkey is primarily concerned about the activities of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq.
Erdogan’s animosity towards Israel and the Syrian regime have hindered Turkey’s ability to prevent attacks from the Islamic State (ISIS) or contain the territorial expansionism of Kurdish groups. Turkey was unable to acquire US-manufactured drones to detect Kurdish rebels in mountainous areas because the US Congress was concerned about its anti-Israel rhetoric. The Turkish request to extradite Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen from the United States for his alleged role in the coup will likely further strain relations between Washington and Ankara. The Turkish government will be more inclined to request Israeli drones instead.
Two factors prevent meaningful cooperation in Syria: Israel will not risk challenging US-Russian support of Syrian Kurdish groups and Turkey cannot risk being overtly in coordination with Israel in Syria.
Against this backdrop came the July 13th announcement that Ankara is considering restoring relations with Syria. Erdogan seems to believe that cooperation with Assad is the only way to deter Kurdish groups in Syria. It will be hard for Ankara to cut its losses in the Syrian conflict and it is increasingly obvious that the Syrian political opposition will be further marginalised and Turkish-backed Syrian groups will likely serve as a proxy in the fight against Kurdish fighters.
Turkish-Israeli relations face barriers that prevent any long-term meaningful cooperation even if both countries are eager to end their regional isolation. The secret talks between Israel and Turkey were triggered by Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane last November. Mending fences with Israel was a calculated move to balance Russia’s diplomatic and economic retaliation against Ankara. If Turkey cannot restore its “zero problems” policy, it must at least begin by having fewer enemies.
It will be hard for Erdogan to quickly walk back six years’ worth of anti-Israel rhetoric and Israel has learned to live without Turkey. The cost-benefit analysis for both Erdogan and Netanyahu remains a choice between strategic interests and domestic politics and the regional effect of the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement should not be exaggerated as long as both leaders are in power.