Turkey-Israel deal may herald new regional relationships, economic ties

ISTANBUL–After months of gloomy political isolation in the Middle East, this week saw moves in a single day to restore Turkey’s relations with both Israel and Russia, key neighbors with whom it has been locked in dispute.

In both cases, full details of the agreements are yet to be fleshed out in talks between politicians and diplomats, which may take months to complete. But a new pattern of Turkish external political and trade relations seems to be appearing, one which is pragmatic and inclined to put economic interests above Islamist goals.

Turkey and Russia have close geographical and trade ties. Business in both countries lost heavily from the freeze Russia imposed after Turkey shot down an Su-24 Russian fighter jet late last year after a 17-second violation of its borders. Given their common interests, it is not altogether surprising that the two countries have now decided to patch things up.

The Turkish-Israeli deal is more surprising and was much more difficult to achieve. But it may point to wider changes in the political balance in the Middle East. The two countries are to exchange ambassadors once more. Israel’s blockade on Gaza has been relaxed and Turkey has permission to send 10,000 tons of relief supplies for the Gazans on 1 July.

Turkey is to impose restrictions on what it described as “non-diplomatic” activities on its territory by Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers, which is regarded by Israel, the US, and the EU, as a terrorist organization, though not by Turkey. These restrictions are, not surprisingly, highly unpopular with Hamas itself. But it looks as if Turkey’s friends in the Arab world are prepared to accept them.

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses the media in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses the media in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey-Israel pipeline lift

In the longer term it looks as if there will be a revival of the once close trade and investment ties between Turkey and Israel. In particular there could be cooperation over the exploitation of two large undersea Israeli natural gas reserves which the Israelis see as promising them a relative economic bonanza.

The assumption is that Israeli gas will travel by undersea pipeline to Turkey, with some of it being purchased by the Turks and some travelling on for sale in Europe. This route is considered technically much easier than a deep sea pipeline going northwards to Greece, but Cyprus will probably be involved in either case.

Beyond this, some Turks close to the AKP government are speaking of something much more far-reaching, an alliance or entente between Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, perhaps with Qatar, to stabilize the Middle East and contain Iranian influence. Whether or not this idea has any chance of becoming a reality remains to be seen: it would certainly have been completely unimaginable only recently.

This week’s reconciliation agreement comes after several years of behind the scenes hard work by Turkish and Israeli officials, backed by the US. They had to overcome the strong mutual antipathy of President Erdoğan of Turkey and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. Ironically, both men now face at least some potential problems at home securing the necessary support for their agreement.

However, Turkey and Israel have worked together closely in the past and as a result there are still officials and businessmen in the two countries who know each other well and want to see cooperation, particularly in defense industries, to resume.

Pact still vulnerable

But this will be a relationship which is very vulnerable to upsets. President Erdoğan has consistently put the Palestinians in general, and the situation of Gaza in particular, at the heart of his policy towards Israel. The AKP has very close relations with Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brothers. Hamas is regarded in Israel and the US as a terrorist organization, but has offices and operates in Turkey.

It was the Turkish commitment to Hamas and its offshoots which pulled the two countries into a breakdown in their relations. This occurred in May 2010 when the IHH (the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, an Islamist group) attempted to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza with Turkish government backing by sending a flotilla in defiance of Israeli warnings. In a clash with the Israeli Defense Force, ten of the flotilla members were killed.

This week Israel agreed to pay $20 million in compensation to the families of those who died. Turkey hopes that its relief and house-building operations in Gaza can ease tensions. But everyone knows that any fresh flare up between the Gazans and Israel might easily blow the Turkish Israeli deal to smithereens.

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