By Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA)
Reports in the Turkish media suggested this week that talks Turkey and Israel are conducting since January in order to normalise their diplomatic relations are nearing an agreement.
Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet wrote that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated, in a cabinet meeting attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that “Israel and Turkey will publish a statement about this in the coming days.”
However Turkey’s future role in the Gaza Strip continues to be a major issue yet to be resolved, with Israel’s close ally Egypt significantly opposing any Turkish presence.
Relations between Jerusalem and Ankara, once very close, deteriorated sharply following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 and collapsed in 2010 after the deaths of nine Turkish citizens killed while trying to prevent Israeli commandos taking over a Gaza-bound ship, the Mavi Marmara, to breach the naval blockade of the Gaza strip.
Following this incident, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey was expelled in 2011.
Turkey has repeatedly insisted on three conditions for normalisation: the lifting of the Gaza blockade, compensation for the Mavi Marmara victims and an apology for the incident.
Negotiations in Geneva
In 2013, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paved the way for reconciliation by issuing an apology. Although it is thought that arrangements were made over a compensation deal for the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara, a number of outstanding issues remain.
Negotiators are thought to have been meeting during the past several weeks in Geneva, to discuss the points of contention, which are thought to include Turkey’s demand for free access to the Gaza Strip and Israel’s demand that Hamas – which is supported by Erdogan- be expelled fully from Turkey.
However, the Kuwaiti-based newspaper al-Jarida says that Turkey’s Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz has sent envoys to Israel to discuss the possible sale of Israeli weapons including unmanned aerial vehicles as part of the reconciliation package.
Apparently, Israeli officials are demanding to know whether Turkey would use such weapons against Kurdish rebels near the Turkey-Syria border. Turkey has yet to respond to Israel’s request.
Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon took a cautious tone this week, saying, “I am not sure if we can arrive to an agreement,” if Turkey continues to back the likes of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. He added, “They must comply with the terms of our agreement so that we can overcome these obstacles.”
‘’Turkey is hosting Hamas in Istanbul and we will not accept that. It supports Hamas generally. That must be discussed. They need to reach our conditions in order to reach a political arrangement.”
Trade relations hit record despite political strain
Despite the low level of diplomatic relations between the two countries during the past years, trade relations have been booming to reach a record, Turkish journalist Cem Seymen, a reporter for CNN Turk, told Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA).
‘’For Israel, the normalisation process is needed because trade relations reached a historical high level,’’ he says.
Seymen, who visited Israel this week, also mentions the role of energy in the wake of the recent discovery of large natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean off the Israeli coast. A rapprochement with Turkey would bring financial benefits for Israel as until now Turkey only relied on Russian gas.
As Ankara seeks to “diversify its sources of gas” – in particular given the context of crisis with Moscow- Israel’s proximity suddenly becomes extremely convenient.
The restoration of ties will likely yield increasing cooperation in the field of natural gas, with the potential for building a sub-sea pipeline from Israel’s gas fields to Turkey.
The crisis with Moscow as well as the refugee crisis, has also led to Turkey improving dramatically its relations with the European Union in recent time.
The EU leaders have agreed tat Turkey is the only solution in the way in the refugee crisis. ‘’In addition, the crisis with Russia also paved the way for Turkey to improve its relations with the countries in the region, including Israel,’’ says Cem Seymen.
The crisis between Ankara and Moscow after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet escalated to such an extent that Erdogan was reminded of the necessity of his former ally.
Analyst Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, puts the normalization of relations in the context ofthe “chaos” in the Middle East.
Turkey has experienced mounting foreign policy headaches with the collapse of its “zero problems with neighbours” policy. The country is facing a resurgent hostile Assad regime, an increasingly independent Kurdish region arising on its border in addition to strained relations with Egypt, Iran and Russia. It has also been targeted by Islamic state (ISIS) and Kurdish separatists. As regional instability increases, Israel and Turkey possess many shared strategic interests, primarily relating to the threat of the rise of ISIS and the growth of Iranian power.
Turkish Prime Minister Racip Tayyip Erdogan has recently said that his country and Israel “need each other.”
“Turkey now knows it needs NATO and the United States. It has always been an American interest that Israel and Turkey reach an agreement,” Lindenstrauss said.
‘Relations will not go back to how they once were’
According to Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs, even if Israel and Turkey soon announce an end to their diplomatic crisis, relations between the two countries will not go back to how they once were.
‘’The golden era of cooperation in the security and intelligence fields between the two countries up until a decade ago will certainly not come back,’’ he writes.
Turkey was a large and important market for Israel’s security industries, which provided drones, intelligence systems, tank and planes upgrades, and more. For years, there was close cooperation between the Mossad and Turkey’s intelligence agency, the MIT, which included meetings, an exchange of each countries’ situational assessments and more, notes Melman.
‘’If the golden formula is found, and the crisis between Turkey and Israel is indeed solved, it will be part of a three-way deal: Israel-Egypt-Turkey, in which the strategic alliance with Egypt is much more important to Israel than rehabilitating ties with Turkey,’’ he stresses.
Will Turkish President Erdogan visit Israel in the wake of a normalisation of the relations between the two countries ?
Cem Seymen believes this is possible. ‘’ US President Obama is visiting Cuba , an historical visit. A visit by Erdogan in Israel in the near future would not be surprising…’’