Israel and Turkey – Together Again

Undoubtedly the biggest result of the Obama trip to Israel was the phone call made by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to apologize for the 2010 IDF attack on the Turkish flotilla that killed nine people. The Israeli leader phoned Turkish PM Erdogan, while sitting with U.S. President Barack Obama in a trailer on a Tel Aviv airport tarmac. In the call, which lasted for nearly 30 minutes, Netanyahu acknowledged “operational mistakes” during the raid, which ended with the deaths of eight Turks and an American. “(Netanyahu) made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life,” the Israeli government said.

Although there are many unrelated reasons for the Turkish/Israeli rapprochement, the fact that it was done in such a way that Obama received credit for it is interesting. Netanyahu and Obama have had very chilly relations and very little trust exists on either side. Undoubtedly, the Israeli leader received something in return – possibly some flexibility in regards to Iran or additional military aid.

The reality is that there were many reasons on both sides for Israel and Turkey to strengthen ties. Israeli President Shimon Peres said that there were “more reasons today than ever before to strengthen Israeli-Turkish relations and cooperation.”

There were also reasons for the US to push the rapprochement too. In fact, Obama’s refusal to push Israeli/Palestinian peace talks or take a more moderate position in regards to potential talks during his visit may have been meant as a “bribe” to encourage Netanyahu to call Erdogan.

Turkey and Jews have a long history. Erdogan spoke of “the shared history and centuries old ties of strong friendship and cooperation between the Jewish and Turkish peoples.” In fact, it was the Ottoman Empire that had encouraged Jewish settlement in the 1800s.

However, it was the shared problem of Syria that was immediately responsible for the renewed ties. Although the deal had been worked on for years by Israeli and Turkish officials it was rushed by developments in Syria. Israel was also concerned by the recent unrest on the Syrian/Israeli border. It was also concerned about Syria’s large chemical weapons arsenal and reports that chemical weapons may have been used in recent days. Close cooperation between Israel and turkey could limit the damage as Syria spirals out of control.

However, there are other areas of cooperation including; NATO, Iran, Russia, the Kurds, and Cyprus. Turkey reduces the isolation of Israel in the region, shares the concern about events in Syria, and has good diplomatic contacts with other countries in the region that Israel can use. Israel helps Turkey in its geopolitical concerns regarding Iran, Russia, the Levant, and Cyprus. Together, they are the NATO’s far eastern flank, although Israel isn’t a formal member of NATO.

One area of common interest is Cyprus, which has a shared Turkish/Greek population, has untapped energy reserves, and is of interest to Russia – a historical rival of both Turkey and Israel. On Monday, the people of Cyprus digested the €10 billion euro bail-out agreed upon in Brussels by President Nicos Anastasiades and three lenders – the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank. This staved off an uncontrolled default and the country’s exit from the euro, but put it in conflict with Russia, whose citizens frequently used its off-shore banking facilities. The Bank of Cyprus, the country’s largest bank, will take over Laiki’s smaller accounts and liabilities. The uninsured funds of the larger depositors in both banks (mostly Russian), including €4.2 billion from Laiki Bank, will contribute to the resolution of the banking crisis.

Israel and Greek Cyprus have joint energy projects in the Mediterranean, which has brought about protests from Turkish Cyprus. The renewal of relations with Israel and Turkey could bring Turkish Cyprus into the energy development program. With the diplomatic détente, the export of Israeli gas to and through Turkey might become feasible. Freed from political obstacles, this would be one of Israel’s most commercially viable export options. Strategically, it’s a better alignment. Israel, Cyprus, and Greece will continue to work together but are unlikely to form an alternative energy corridor or fruitful strategic partnership in the eastern Mediterranean

The end of the flotilla crisis, Israeli cooperation in regards to Cyprus energy, as well as Ankara’s new opening to the Kurds and the PKK’s decision to end its armed struggle stabilizes Turkey’s relations on its western flanks and should improve relations with Washington and NATO. Turkey will now be better placed to support U.S. efforts in the Mediterranean and Syria.

One of those areas where Turkish influence could be beneficial is in the Gaza/Israel situation. As the Netanyahu phone call made clear, Turkish/Israeli relations depend on the fate of the Palestinians. Turkey has insisted that victims of the flotilla raid are compensated and Israel remained committed to the easing of restrictions of goods to Gaza before restoring relations. In fact, there has already been some easing of shipment of civilian goods into Gaza

Turkey, Israel, and Iran

Although the continued insurgency war\crisis in Syria was the major, publicized reason for the renewed relations between Turkey and Israel, Iran was the biggest unmentioned reason. Turkey plays a pivotal role in Israel’s air defenses against Iran. A NATO radar base in eastern Turkey, established in 2011 and manned by US soldiers, relays critical air defense information back to Israel. It is data from this system that allows Israel’s Arrow missile defense system to intercept Iranian Shahab 3 missiles. In addition, Turkey doesn’t want another nuclear neighbor and shares the same concerns that Israel has of Iran. This means that Turkey may turn a blind air defense radar eye to Israeli flights against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Geopolitics aside, both leaders have interests in the alliance. A Turkish alliance helps solidify Israel’s northern borders, especially with Syria. This allows it to focus more on a potential threat from Egypt. Egypt has a large conventional military and Israel is concerned that its IDF isn’t ready. Turkey’s cooperation in controlling unrest in Syria allows Israel to switch its focus.

Erdogan is also looking towards his political future and knows that his future is based on a good economy and stability. His term in office ends in 2014 and the constitution, in its current form, bars him from running for re-election. Erdogan hopes to change the law in his favor.

Although he can’t do much about unrest with Syria, the agreement with the PKK, the PKK’s ceasefire, and the end of this perennial source of violence, strengthens the border with unstable Syria and provides for more domestic stability.

The Israeli rapprochement also helps Erdogan by helping Turkey’s economy Bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel reached $4 billion in 2011, with a clear export surplus for Turkey.

Israel can also help solve the Cyprus issue in a way that makes Turkey look good. In a referendum, Turkish Cypriots agreed to the unification of the island, only to see Greek Cypriots veto it. Now a Western looking Greek Cypriot government needs closer economic ties with the West and that route goes through Turkey. Unlike his communist predecessor, Anastasiades is a man of the West and wants to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace. This can only be achieved through give-and-take with Turkey, and, if successful, could kick-start the settlement process. All Cypriots should benefit from the country’s energy resources. A Cyprus settlement could add several percentage points to GNP, improving the business climate and attracting new investment. Turkey would be the biggest benefactor, while Israel can provide investment in a more secure energy source.

Given all of the benefits to both sides, there is no surprise that Turkey and Israel are renewing ties. It offers immediate benefits in limiting the spillover of violence from Syria. It offers more of a bulkhead against Iran. And, it offers economic benefits to both nations, while keeping pressure on Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Given that, the question is less why did Netanyahu call Erdogen, but why it took him so long to call?