Israel, Turkey Edging Closer

Israel, Turkey Edging Closer

Rewards of pact would be substantial for both countries, but hurdles remain.

Jerusalem — In the first step towards a normalization of relations between Turkey and Israel, Turkey on Monday acceded to Israel’s demand that it expel a senior Hamas representative based in Istanbul, Saleh al-Arouri, the alleged mastermind of the murder of three Israeli teens in June 2014.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that other steps are needed before full diplomatic relations can be restored. And analysts said some of the demands being made by both sides are going to be very difficult to meet. But the rewards should an agreement be reached would be so substantial for both countries that they have agreed to try again after previous talks in 2013 failed.

Speaking to his Likud Party Monday, Netanyahu was quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying: “There are ongoing talks with Turkey, but there are no understandings, and we’re not there yet.”

In addition to al-Arouri being given the boot, the two sides have reportedly agreed that Israel would pay $20 million to the families of nine Turkish citizens killed when Israeli forces stormed their Mavi Marmara boat in 2010 to stop them from breaching Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. In return, Turkey has reportedly agreed to drop any and all claims surrounding the incident.

In 2013, under intense pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu acceded to another one of Turkey’s demands by rendering an apology for the flotilla incident.

The $20 million compensation fund and al-Arouri’s expulsion are reportedly two of the five-point memorandum of understanding negotiated between Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold. The others call for the two countries to restore full diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors; Turkey would pass a law ending all current and future legal claims against Israeli soldiers involved in the Mavi Marmara incident; and the two sides would begin negotiations on building a pipeline that would export Israeli natural gas to Turkey.

Although Turkey expelled al-Arouri, it has reportedly announced that it would not close Hamas’ office in Istanbul and would continue funding Hamas.

Turkey, the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel, severed ties after the flotilla affair, but relations between the two countries had already begun to sour after the election of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and plummeted further during the brief but bloody 2008-2009 Israel-Hamas war.

Analysts say recent developments in the Middle East have left both Turkey and Israel feeling vulnerable and eager to reestablish ties — but only if both sides meet difficult demands.

Ege Seckin, a Turkish analyst at ISH, a global research company based in London, told The Jewish Week that both countries are concerned that Iran, “their common rival,” is wielding too much power in the region.

“Israel fears the recent nuclear deal will boost Iran’s ability to project its power through proxies such as Hezbollah and the Syrian government,” he said.

Turkey, for its part, hasn’t been able to count on a once-key ally, Russia, since it downed a Russian plane that allegedly strayed into Turkish airspace in late November. And Seckin said that “Turkey’s support for Islamist militant groups [fighting against the Syrian government] in northern Syria has become increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of pressure from the U.S. and other NATO allies.”

This in turn “puts Turkey in a disadvantaged position in the Syria-proxy conflict,” the Turkish analyst said.

Seckin said Turkey misses the “lucrative contracts” it once maintained with the Israeli defense industry, as well as close intelligence sharing and joint military operations — all of which ended when Turkey cut diplomatic ties with Israel.

Regarding Israel’s natural gas reserves, Seckin said that if Israel wants to export gas to Europe “at a competitive rate, it would have to construct a pipeline to the Turkish mainland. Turkey, after its fallout with Russia, is looking for alternative sources of natural gas imports, and Israel is a very attractive option.”

Yaakov Amidror, a retired IDF major general and a research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said the optimistic statements from Netanyahu’s office, though premature, indicated Turkey wants to renew ties sooner rather than later.

“I think Turkey understands it has lost more than it’s earning from the current situation,” he said. “They see nothing has been solved in Syria and that Russia is very strong there. Their relations with Iran aren’t flourishing and they have problems with Iraq. When they look around all they see are problems.”

Israel, for its part, “lost its good relations” with its sole Muslim ally, Amidror said, but noted that non-military binational trade between the two countries has “doubled or tripled” since 2010.

The biggest problem, the former general said, was the loss of military contracts and the Israeli Air Forces’ ability to train over Turkish air space.

“Pilots want to do exercises far from Israel because some of our targets are far from Israel, but Israel is using the airspace of some European countries,” Amidror said.

Nimrod Goren, who heads the Mitvim Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and teaches Middle East studies at Hebrew University, said it would be a great advantage for Israel to sell its natural gas to Turkey given that “it’s not easy to do deals with its Arab neighbors.”

It would also be of mutual benefit for Israel and Turkey, which both share borders with Syria, “to engage in strategic dialogue and coordination,” he said.

Goren emphasized that while the talks between the two countries are evolving, “they’re not finished yet. The process has been going on since 2011 and there’s been some progress, but some important issues aren’t settled.”

Arguably the biggest stumbling block is Turkey’s insistence that Israel completely end its blockade of Gaza, something Netanyahu told Likud ministers Monday he has no intention of doing.

“We won’t change our policy on the naval blockade,” he said. “We are transferring equipment to Gaza and assisting in its reconstruction, but we won’t concede our security,” he said.

Israeli leaders have said in the past that Israel could not agree to such a demand as long as Hamas remained a threat to the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Sunday that Israel is showing some flexibility.

“They are not warm to totally lifting the blockade of Gaza, but they have arrived at a point where they assume they can loosen the blockade for Turkey,” Davutoglu said.

“If we assume Israel won’t [comply] the implication is that a deal will require a major rhetorical shift on the Turkish government’s behalf. It will be difficult for Erdogan, who sees himself as the champion of the Palestinian cause, to make a 180-degree turn.”

Goren believes that for an agreement to work, Israel must give Turkey a large role in the reconstruction of Gaza.

“The question is, how to position Turkey to have more leverage than by actually lifting the blockade,” Goren said.

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