Turkey and Israel about to normalise relations after years of crises
Istanbul - Turkey and Israel, two key political and military powers in the Middle East, are close to normalising ties after six years of crises.
Following talks by high-ranking officials in London, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said there was hope for an agreement to re-establish full relations with Israel. “The teams made progress towards finalising the agreement and closing the gaps and agreed that the deal will be finalised in the next meeting, which will be convened very soon,” the ministry said.
No date for a follow-up meeting was announced but, given that Turkish leaders have been keen to downplay chances for a return to normal ties with the Jewish state, the upbeat statement by Ankara suggested an agreement could be near. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Vatan daily that both sides hoped to enter a “final stage” in the talks soon.
Close allies in the 1990s, NATO member Turkey and US ally Israel fell out over Israel’s approach to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s current president who served as prime minister from 2003-14, accused Israel of waging “state terror” against Palestinians.
The breaking point came on May 31st, 2010, when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a ship owned by an Islamic Turkish charity, which was trying to deliver aid to the cordoned-off Gaza Strip. Ten Turkish activists were killed in the raid. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and cancelled military cooperation with Israel in the aftermath.
Following pressure by Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu apologised to Erdogan in 2013, fulfilling a key Turkish demand for normalisation of ties, but several rounds of negotiations failed to produce results. Ankara wants compensation payments by Israel for the families of the Mavi Marmara victims as well as a lifting of the Gaza blockade. In return, Israel wants Turkey to drop a criminal case in which Israeli officers and politicians are being tried in absentia for their role in the Mavi Marmara raid.
Israel has reportedly agreed to pay about $20 million in compensation. Both sides are also said to be close to a solution for the Gaza issue. Israel is unwilling to lift the blockade completely but the Netanyahu government is pondering a compromise that would make it possible for Turkey to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza, Turkish news reports said. One sticking point is Turkey’s proposal to provide floating power plants on ships that would be anchored off Gaza to address the acute energy shortage in the territory.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed that Israel’s Gaza embargo was one of the reasons preventing a deal so far. The blockade was a “sensitive issue”, Cavusoglu told the Turkish news channel a Haber. “There are basic needs like electricity, water and energy,” he said, indicating that tentative agreements reached on compensation and other questions were not enough. “Those hurdles have to be overcome as well.”
Possible anger among the Muslim-conservative grass roots of Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is one reason that Ankara is so cautious about an agreement with Israel. The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the charity that owns the Mavi Marmara, says it is opposed to dropping the case against Israeli officials.
IHH official Hanefi Sinan told the Islamic Vahdet newspaper that the reported agreement was a “shame”. Calling Israel a “centre of terrorism”, Sinan said Turkey must not trust the Jewish state. “A peace agreement will certainly not be to the benefit of Turkey and Gaza,” he said.
But Yahya Bostan, a columnist for the pro-government Turkish Daily Sabah, said a comprehensive settlement is likely. “Neither side wants this to continue for much longer,” Bostan wrote April 11th, adding that the next and final meeting between negotiators of both sides was likely to take place within two weeks.
Turkey and Israel have found themselves isolated in the Middle East and are keen to find partners in a region rocked by the Syrian war.
Following confrontation with Moscow triggered by the shooting down of a Russian warplane by the Turkish Air Force near the Syrian border in November, Turkey has reinforced efforts to find alternative suppliers of energy. Reports say Ankara has set its sights on newly discovered natural gas fields off the Israeli coast.
Political progress has been accompanied by symbolic gestures underlining the parties’ willingness to overcome the Mavi Marmara crisis. During a recent visit to Washington, Erdogan met with Jewish leaders and was quoted by Turkish media as telling students that he was to attend a Jewish wedding in Turkey in May or June, which would be the first participation of a Turkish president in such a ceremony.
When a suicide bomber of the Islamic State (ISIS) killed three Israelis and one Iranian with an attack in Istanbul on March 19th, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin phoned Erdogan to thank him for expressing his condolences.
Turkey has stepped up security in the face of that and other attacks amid reports that the country’s Jewish community of about 20,000 people could be targeted. Sky News reported in March that ISIS was planning to attack Jewish schoolchildren in Turkey and that undercover counterterrorism measures were under way to foil any such attacks.