Turkey and Israel ready to normalise ties
Istanbul - Turkey and Israel are set to put their deepest diplomatic crisis behind them and normalise relations.
Reports in both countries said negotiators from Turkey and Israel would soon announce a deal, with a formal signing of the agreement likely in July. The reports came after Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said a solution in the long-lasting row with Israel was not far off.
Close allies in the 1990s, Turkey and Israel fell out in May 2010 over the Israeli seizure of the Mavi Marmara, a ship owned by a Turkish charity that was approaching the blockaded Gaza Strip with supplies. Israeli commandoes stormed the ship and killed ten activists on board. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and reduced contacts with the Jewish state to a minimum.
Under pressure from the United States, which was concerned about the row between two of its closest partners in the Middle East, Israel apologised to Turkey in 2013 and said it would pay compensation to the families of the victims, meeting two of three conditions set by Ankara for a return to normal relations. Turkish media say Israel will pay $20 million.
Turkey’s third demand — lifting of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip — proved the hardest obstacle. Diplomats from both countries have met several times over the past year to hammer out a deal and differences over Gaza appear to have been overcome.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper reported that Israel was allowing Turkey to complete, staff and supply a hospital in Gaza. Israel would grant permission for a Turkish-German project to build a power plant in Gaza to ease chronic energy shortages. Turkey would build a seawater desalination plant to boost potable water supplies for Gaza, the newspaper said.
With these arrangements, Turkey’s government can argue that the Israeli blockade is lifted enough to improve the daily lives of Gazans and Israel is still keeping a close eye on what is going into and out of the territory. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that Turkey agreed to send aid to Gaza via the Israeli port of Ashdod rather than directly to Gaza.
According to Haaretz, another obstacle to a comprehensive settlement was Israel’s demand that Turkey close an office of Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza, in its territory. The newspaper said a “formula” had been reached on the issue.
Signs of a rapprochement between the two countries multiplied in recent months. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in January the Turks had to accept “that we need Israel”. Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Reuters news agency that he met with Erdogan at a nuclear security summit in Washington in March “in a very good atmosphere”. The Erdogan-Steinitz meeting was the highest level face-to-face contact between the two countries since May 2010 ship incident.
One reason Turkey and Israel are working to overcome the crisis is that both sides are interested in energy cooperation. Natural gas resources under Israeli and Cypriot waters in the Mediterranean could be exploited and exported to world markets with Turkey’s help.
On the political front, Turkey has become increasingly isolated in the Middle East. Ties with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran have soured, while the downing of a Russian military plane by Turkish fighter jets on the Syrian border in November developed into another crisis.
Analysts in Turkey say Erdogan and his new prime minister are seeking a more conciliatory approach in foreign policy after the departure of Yildirim’s predecessor, Ahmet Davutoglu. According to news reports, Yildirim told a group of journalists during a closed-door meeting that Ankara was looking to repair relations with its neighbours. “Israel, Syria, Russia, Egypt — there is no eternal enmity between these countries bordering the Mediterranean and the Black Sea,” Yildirim was quoted as saying.
While trying to normalise ties with Israel, Erdogan has been reaching out to Russia. In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan said he hoped for a return to the good relations with Moscow that Ankara enjoyed before the downing of the Russian plane.
Political columnist Murat Yetkin said it looks as though a major policy shift was under way and that the era of Turkey’s isolation is coming to an end. Yetkin referred to the term “precious loneliness”, coined by Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s presidential spokesman, during Davutoglu’s tenure. Kalin used “precious loneliness” to argue that Turkey had problems with some neighbours because it was following a foreign policy based on moral values.
Now things are changing, Yetkin wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News. “It now looks like Erdogan has seen that the foreign policy line he followed with Davutoglu is not taking Turkey anywhere better,” he said.
While Erdogan is trying to put out fires damaging Turkey’s foreign relations in the region, the president is meeting criticism domestically. Harsh rhetoric used by Erdogan and his aides against Israel, Russia and other powers in the past makes it harder now to sell compromises to the Turkish public. “Why does Turkey need Israel all of a sudden?” opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu asked.