The rocky road to Turk­ish, Is­raeli rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

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The five-point mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing ne­go­ti­ated be­tween Turk­ish For­eign Min­istry Un­der­sec­re­tary Feridun Sinir­li­oglu and Is­raeli For­eign Min­istry Di­rec­tor Gen­eral Dore Gold looks promis­ing: Ankara and Tel Aviv would re­store full diplo­matic re­la­tions and ex­change am­bas­sadors; Is­rael would pay $20 mln to the fam­i­lies of the vic­tims of the May 2010 Mavi Mar­mara raid; Tur­key would pass a law end­ing all cur­rent and fu­ture le­gal cases against Is­raeli sol­diers in­volved in Mavi Mar­mara; the two sides would be­gin ne­go­ti­a­tions on ex­port­ing Is­raeli nat­u­ral gas to Tur­key; and fi­nally — and per­haps most i mpor­tant — Tur­key would ex­pel high-rank­ing Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri and cur­tail the ac­tiv­i­ties of the mil­i­tant Pales­tinian group on its ter­ri­tory.

In­ter­est­ingly, the Is­raeli block­ade of the Gaza Strip seems to be ab­sent from the agree­ment. Since 2010, the Turk­ish side has in­sisted that a full restora­tion of diplo­matic re­la­tions with Is­rael could take place only if the Jewish state lifts the Gaza block­ade. Is­raeli lead­ers, how­ever, refuse to end sanc­tions against the Hamas-con­trolled ter­ri­tory as long as the Pales­tinian group poses a threat to their coun­try.

Karel Valansi, a Mid­dle East ex­pert and colum­nist for the Turk­ish Jewish weekly Salom, thinks “the Gaza is­sue is still un­cer­tain.”

Valansi told Al-Mon­i­tor, “Is­rael will not lift the block­ade but could ease it. Will that be enough for Ankara? That is the real ques­tion.”

Gabriel Mitchell called the agree­ment “very good news,” but he also thinks that Gaza is the stick­ing point. Mitchell, a doc­toral can­di­date in gov­ern­ment and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs at Vir­ginia Tech and the US rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Mitvim In­sti­tute, told Al-Mon­i­tor that “there has been some cos­metic eas­ing of the Gaza block­ade since Mavi Mar­mara, in par­tic­u­lar for Turk­ish de­liv­er­ies.”

He added, “I can’t pos­si­bly imag­ine that [the lat­est] deal went through with­out some con­ver­sa­tion about Gaza and de­vel­op­ing a mech­a­nism to han­dle fu­ture dis­putes re­gard­ing Hamas and the Pales­tini­ans. If not, this deal could be very short-lived.”

A for­mer Turk­ish diplo­mat, who spoke to Al-Mon­i­tor on con­di­tion of anonymity, shares that cau­tious out­look. “Rather than Is­rael, for Tur­key the big is­sue is Syria and Rus­sia.” The diplo­mat said, “[The Turk­ish] side wants to find new part­ners against Rus­sia and es­tab­lish new sources for its nat­u­ral gas needs.”

In­deed, nat­u­ral gas could help to warm Turk­ish-Is­raeli re­la­tions.

Volkan Emre, founder of the World En­ergy Se­cu­rity Anal­y­sis Plat­form in Wash­ing­ton, told Al-Mon­i­tor that “Is­rael’s to­tal es­ti­mated nat­u­ral gas re­serves un­der the Mediter­ranean Sea, in­clud­ing the Leviathan and Royee fields, reach 904 bil­lion cu­bic me­ters, which far ex­ceeds that coun­try’s consumption.” Volkan added,

“Given Tur­key’s well-de­vel­oped tech­ni­cal and in­sti­tu­tional in­fra­struc­ture on the down­stream and its de­sire to be­come an en­ergy hub, the in­volve­ment of skill­ful US com­pa­nies such as No­ble En­ergy on the up­stream and likely US po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary back­ing, ex­port­ing Is­raeli gas to Tur­key and Europe is a real pos­si­bil­ity — de­spite Ankara’s dis­agree­ments with Greece and Cyprus over the lat­ter’s ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone.”

Valansi points out that if the Turk­ish-Is­raeli deal goes through and es­tab­lishes trust be­tween the two sides, nat­u­ral gas could tie Ankara and Tel Aviv more closely to each other. She said, “[Be­cause] th­ese two coun­tries face sim­i­lar threats and share mu­tual in­ter­ests, they are forced to co­op­er­ate in many fields: the Rus­sian pres­ence in Syria, the threat of the Is­lamic State, and the worry that the nu­clear deal could en­able Iran to ex­pand its reach and power in the Mid­dle East.” Given Tur­key and se­cu­rity needs, Valansi pos­si­ble.”

The for­mer Turk­ish diplo­mat is less op­ti­mistic. She cer­tainly does not ex­pect the re­vival of the friendly spirit that de­fined Turk­ish-Is­raeli re­la­tions from the late 1990s through 2008.

“Com­pared to the golden age of the re­la­tions,” she told AlMon­i­tor, “there is not much of a re­la­tion­ship.” She ar­gues that prag­matic cal­cu­la­tions rather than a gen­uine de­sire for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion drive the an­tic­i­pated thaw. If con­di­tions change and an­tag­o­nism be­comes more ben­e­fi­cial, es­pe­cially Is­rael’s eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and thinks “nor­mal­iza­tion is quite for Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and his Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AKP), Tur­key and Is­rael could go back to where they are now.

The diplo­mat wants us to re­mem­ber the maxim “all pol­i­tics is lo­cal,” say­ing, “In the 1990s and 2000s, the busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal elite of Tur­key and Is­rael were pri­mar­ily cen­trist and pro­gres­sive, and it was th­ese peo­ple who drove the re­la­tion­ship. To­day, sec­u­lar lib­er­als are weak and re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives are strong in the two coun­tries, so there is lit­tle pub­lic de­mand to i mprove the re­la­tions.”

In fact, some AKP con­stituents are al­ready op­pos­ing a deal with Is­rael. Quite tellingly, news of the Turk­ish-Is­raeli deal led to an up­roar from the Is­tan­bul-based IHH Hu­man­i­tar­ian Re­lief Foun­da­tion, the aid or­ga­ni­za­tion that or­gan­ised the flotilla to break the Gaza block­ade in 2010. The re­li­gious-ori­ented IHH’s nine activists died at the hands of Is­raeli naval com­man­does on the Mavi Mar­mara. On De­cem­ber 18, the sec­u­lar and an­tiAKP web­site OdaTV quoted IHH Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Yavuz Dede, who la­beled a deal with Is­rael “treach­ery.”

The road to Turk­ish-Is­raeli rec­on­cil­i­a­tion will be nei­ther easy nor pleas­ant.

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