By Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA)
The formal annoucement of a reconciliation agreement between Israel and Turkey will see the two countries renew official diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors next month.
The agreement, which had been hinted at by diplomats for weeks following ongoing talks, ends a six-year feud between Jerusalem and Ankara – after years of warm relationship- that began with the incident aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship launched from Turkey by pro-Palestinian activists to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Israeli commandos who boarded the ship were violently attacked with iron bars and ten Turkish citizens were killed in the ensuing melee. A number of Israeli soldiers were injured in the raid.
The Israeli government has since apologized for the incident and Israeli-Turkish ties have been improving since a conciliatory phone call in 2013.
Under the agreement, Israel will pay $20 million to the families of the activists killed on the Mavi Marmara.
Turkey will be allowed to deliver humanitarian aidtyo Gaza through the neighboring Israeli port of Ashdod. Turkey will be permitted to build infrastructure to boost water and electricity in Gaza.
“Relations with Israel will return to their previous state after six years,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared as the agreement was signed on Tuesday separately by each country.
Ahead of a vote Wednesday by the high-level Israeli security cabinet – made up of 10 government ministers in charge of forming and implementing foreign and defense policy- to ratify the deal, the ministers of the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennet annnounced that they will oppose it.
Their opposition would likely bring the “no” votes to three, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman saying that he would also oppose the deal.
For the Jewish Home ministers, the return of the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by Hamas in Gaza is a key demand they want included in the deal.
An Israeli official said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to a separate document instructing all relevant Turkish agencies to help resolve the issue of Israel’s missing citizens, apparently referring to the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge in 2014 that are believed to be held by Hamas. An Israeli of Ethiopian descent and a Bedouin from Israel’s Arab community are also believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza.
Families of the missing Israelis had urged the government to hold off on any reconciliation deal with Turkey until their plight is addressed. Relatives of one of the fallen soldiers, Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, set up a protest tent outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.
‘’The Turkish president most likely assumes that reconciling with Israel will bolster his position in the U.S. and may even promote his dream of seeing Turkey accepted into the European Union,’’ writes leading commentator Dan Margalit in daily Israel Hayom.
Deal of ‘strategic importance’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the agreement of “strategic importance” for “security, for regional stability and for the Israeli economy”.
He said that “my policy is to create centres of stability in this unstable and stormy region” and that Israel and Turkey are “two major powers in the region”.
Importantly, said Netanyahu, the agreement includes “a commitment to prevent all terrorist or military activity against Israel from Turkish soil,” an apparent reference to Hamas activity there. The agreement also “requires Turkey to assist Israel in entering into all international organisations that Turkey is a member of,” which would appear to include NATO.
Israel has been recently allowed by NATO to open a permanent office at the organization’s headquarters in Brussels after Turkey lifted its opposition.
Another critical advantage of the agreement, said Netanyahu, is “cooperation on economic and energy matters, including the gas issue”.
He said that having developed its natural gas resources, Israel will look to reach the Turkish market and European markets via Turkey.
“I think it’s an important step here to normalize relations on one side. It has also immense implications for the Israeli economy… and I mean positive immense implications,” Netanyahu said as he met US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome.
The Israeli government sees the prospect of lucrative Mediterranean gas deals. Israel owns huge untapped gas fields which need to be developed. Turkey is looking for a natural gas supplier, as relations with Russia, its main provider, significantly declined after the downing of a Russian jet near the Turkish-Syrian border last year.
Yaakov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, said the agreement will have little immediate impact on security ties and that it will likely take time for relations to warm up to anywhere close to what they were in the pre-Erdogan years. “The potential is huge but we need time to build this trust,” he said.
According to Herb Keinon in The Jerusalem Post, Turkey needs the deal as much, if not even more, than Israel. ‘’For years the negotiations were one-way, based on what Israel had to give Turkey: the apology, compensation, lifting the blockade. But as Turkey’s strategic situation worsened, as peace negotiations with the Kurdish PKK broke down, as the Syrian civil war went on and on, and as its relations with Egypt and with Russia deteriorated, it was no longer a country that could dictate terms,’’ he writes.
‘’Israel did not get a Turkish commitment to evict Hamas, only a promise that the terrorist group will not plan or mount attacks against it from Turkish soil, or raise funds. But Erdogan did not get Israel to fundamentally change its Gaza policy, i.e., lifting the blockade.’’
Amos Harel, military commentator of daily Haaretz thinks that the reconciliation deal with Turkey ‘’just might stave off the next war between Israel and Hamas- precisely because of the food and aid that are expected to be delivered to Gazans.’’
‘’The economic question is even more important than the diplomatic talks,’’ he writes.