Almost seven years have passed since the famous scene at Davos in January 2009 when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan insulted his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres during a debate on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum and stormed out of a public platform to become an instantaneous hero on the ‘Arab Street’. What has happened now for Turkey and Israel to make up unceremoniously without any foreplay?
In a nutshell, what explains the strange reconciliation is a congruence of interests with the two regional states straddling Syria along the country’s northern and southern borders feeling increasingly marginalized and unable to stall the UN-sponsored peace process that is about to get under way, and apprehending that a settlement may well lead to the consolidation of Iran’s regional influence in the Levant.
Both Turkey and Israel covertly supported Syrian rebel groups in the campaign to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. But the extremist groups are now being excluded from the UN-sponsored peace process and a relentless international effort is on the cards to decimate them through the coming months.
Bereft of proxies, Turkey and Israel have been stranded, watching helplessly from the sidelines the specter of a Syrian peace process taking off and an end to the conflict becoming a conceivable possibility where Iran may walk away laughing with the sweepstakes.
For Turkey, of course, the emergent reality is that a Kurdish entity may form on its southern border with Syria with the tacit acquiescence of both the United States and Russia, while Israel feels despondent that its master plan to create a buffer inside Syrian territory under the control of proxy groups near the Golan Heights is being rendered a pipedream.
On the practical plane, the cementing factor in the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is provided by the critical need of both sides to pool intelligence resources. The Israeli intelligence is well-established in Iraqi Kurdistan, and can help Turkey with useful inputs in fighting the civil war that is shaping up with the Kurdish separatists.
On the other hand, Turkey can provide Israel with valuable intelligence regarding the Syrian supply lines of the Hezbollah leading to Lebanon and the Iranian presence on the whole in Iraq and Syria.
Both Turkey and Israel sought a robust US intervention in Syria by leading its regional allies – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, etc. – in the campaign to press for ‘regime change’ in Damascus through military force, and both feel dejected today that the Obama administration has been careful not to get sucked into a quagmire.
Worse still, they are aghast that a new proximity is developing between Washington and Moscow to kick-start a Syrian peace process that might lead to the formation of an international coalition with a UN mandate to degrade and destroy the extremist groups, whilst working on a parallel track work to stabilize Syria on terms that may eventually work to Iran’s advantage.
In strategic terms, both Turkey and Israel view with profound disquiet the surge of Iran as regional power. They are acutely conscious that once the US sanctions against Iran get lifted (which seems likely by January-February), Tehran’s capacity to be a forceful player in regional politics will significantly strengthen.
Thus, Turkey and Israel regard Saudi Arabia as their natural ally in an upcoming struggle to ensure that Assad is somehow kept out of a future power structure in Syria.
Erdogan is due to visit Saudi Arabia on December 29. President Assad is expected to pay a visit to Tehran in the coming days. The fault lines in regional politics are barely hidden. Saudi Arabia fights shy of acknowledging its contacts with Israel. But Turkey can now act as the bridge coordinating the anti-Iran thrust of regional politics. To be a sleeping partner in a Sunni Arab axis working against Iran has been a pet dream for Israel.
To be sure, the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is quintessentially a pragmatic arrangement, which lacks any underlying principles, leave alone ideological underpinnings. Its durability may seem questionable, taking into consideration Erdogan’s mercurial temper. But close ties with Israel is something that Turkish elites broadly welcome.
Again, the reconciliation serves a key purpose for both countries, when the geopolitics of the region is rapidly changing and new alignments are in the making. Both Turkey and Israel factor in the high probability that a broad-based US-Iranian engagement is now a matter of time.
All the same, for Israel, reconciliation with Turkey is a bitter pill to swallow after all the humiliation and scorn that Erdogan had heaped on it during the past six years. For Erdogan, too, who prided himself as the foremost champion of the Palestinian cause, this is a climbdown that cannot but mar his grandstanding on the Arab Street.
Erdogan has reportedly assured Israel that Turkey will roll back its support for Hamas, which has been a ‘red line’ of sorts for Israel. (Erdogan reportedly held a meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Istanbul on Saturday.)
Presumably, Turkey will no longer block the partnership programs between the NATO and Israel, which repose on the latter the de facto status of a member of the alliance. No doubt, the NATO partnership will strengthen Israel’s strategic options as a regional power.
Turkey, on the other hand, hopes to benefit out of the clout Israel wields in the US to influence American policies that impact its interests. Erdogan personally stands to gain because the scathing American media criticism of his authoritarian rule may now get toned down, which in turn will immensely help as he steers Turkey toward a presidential form of government that enables him to perpetuate his rule for the coming decade or so.
On balance, Israel stands to gain more out of this new-found dalliance, which also promises to be commercially lucrative, holding out the prospect of setting up a gas pipeline via Turkey connecting its massive Leviathan gas fields to the European market.
Israel has so far managed tactfully its relations with Russia, while also ensuring that the fundamentals of partnership with the US continue to remain strong.
The normalization with Turkey, therefore, enables Israel to integrate with the mainstream politics of the Middle East without jeopardizing its ties with the big powers.
Turkey under the leadership of Erdogan, on the contrary, suffers from a very poor image in the West and in Russia alike.
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