Turkey mends fences with Israel
Istanbul - Faced with growing turmoil in neighbouring Syria and a deepening row with Russia that could threaten energy supplies, Turkey is moving to repair ties with Israel after years of crisis.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says rapprochement between Turkey and Israel would benefit a region destabilised by the Syrian war. Erdogan, admired by supporters for his tough stance towards the Jewish state, argues that better relations between the two US allies are in everyone’s interest.
“Israel needs a country like Turkey in this region,” Erdogan said January 2nd during a trip to Saudi Arabia. “And we, too, must accept that we need Israel. This is a reality in the region.”
Ties between Turkey and Israel, which were close allies during the 1990s but grew apart as Ankara criticised Israel’s policies in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, broke in May 2010 when Israeli commandos killed ten Turkish activists on a ship bound for Gaza, the Mavi Marmara. Ambassadors were withdrawn and bilateral relations downgraded.
Under pressure from the United States, concerned about the tensions between two of its allies in the Middle East, Israel apologised for the death of the activists in 2013. Turkey says full normalisation of ties depends on compensation from Israel to victims’ families and an easing of the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Erdogan added that Turkey was keen to see an end to Israeli actions around the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites. “If both sides implement necessary measures based on mutual sincerity, normalisation will follow,” he said.
Turkey has been sending signals of goodwill. In December, the country’s small Jewish community was allowed to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, publicly for the first time since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923.
Officials of the two countries met in December and both sides say negotiations are continuing. Reports said Turkey would scale down the activities of Hamas in its territory and expel a senior Hamas official as part of a deal with Israel. Turkey would also end a trial in Istanbul, in which Israeli officials are being tried in absentia for their role in the Mavi Marmara attack, the reports said.
After years of Israel-bashing, the Turkish government has to be careful not to give the impression that it is appeasing the Jewish state and its policies in the Gaza Strip. In 2014, Erdogan accused Israel of behaving worse than Nazi Germany in its policies towards Gaza.
“Any steps taken to improve ties are significant as long as it supports efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue,” the Turkish pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah said in an editorial. “There can be no doubt that as long as the current Israeli policy towards Gaza remains, the Turkish public will be wholly opposed to any sort of rapprochement.”
Erdogan is at pains to point out that Turkey’s change of course could ultimately benefit Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. He said Israel had suggested that the Gaza blockade could be lifted for goods and building materials from Turkey. The president said Turkey was ready to send an electricity-generating ship to the Gaza coast to help overcome energy problems in the strip.
Turkey’s efforts to find common ground with Israel come at a time of increased tension between Ankara and Moscow over the Syrian conflict. Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey following the downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border by Turkish fighter jets on November 24th. There is concern in Turkey, which depends on natural gas from Russia, that Moscow might cut energy supplies, especially after Russia cancelled the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project following the downing of the jet.
“The crisis with Russia has pushed Turkey to try to diversify its energy resources,” columnist Verda Ozer wrote in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. As newly discovered natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean could make Israel a future energy exporter, the issue is seen as one of the driving factors behind the thaw in Turkish- Israeli relations. Reports said Turkish and Israeli officials resolved to include cooperation in the area of natural gas in a possible agreement to seal the return to normality between the two states.
Politically, the row with Russia has intensified Turkey’s need for partners in the region as the Syrian war grinds on. Ankara is pushing for an end to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while its relations with major regional players such as Egypt, Iraq and Iran are difficult.
“The Syrian crisis is another issue on which Turkey may seek quiet Israeli support, particularly the support of Israeli intelligence, which may prove crucial to Turkish war efforts,” Dan Arbell, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent analysis.