‘Turkey-Israel must reconcile in 4 weeks’

‘Turkey-Israel must reconcile in 4 weeks’

“Turkey-Israel relations need to normalize in the upcoming three to four weeks, otherwise the process might collapse again.”

These words were uttered by Alon Liel, Israel’s former ambassador to Turkey, who I talked to on the phone yesterday. Liel also served as the undersecretary of the Israeli foreign ministry and is still actively following Turkey-Israel relations.

But what makes these four weeks so critical?

The background of Liel’s argument is as follows: Recently, Israel discovered vast amounts of natural gas in an eastern Mediterranean area called the “Leviathan field.” Yet the amount is much higher than what Israel needs for its domestic consumption. Hence the government took the decision to export 50 percent of it, upon which Israeli companies signed deals with Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian energy firms. 

However, the energy trade with Egypt collapsed in 2012 following attacks on the pipeline by militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Furthermore, the bilateral relations became further strained after an international arbitrator obliged Egypt this month to pay $2 billion in compensation.

The Palestinians also withdrew from their energy deal five months ago due to domestic opposition. And the Jordanians are buying a very small amount of gas. Therefore, Israel has been looking for new markets and this is where Greece has come to its rescue.

On Nov. 26 Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was in Israel, where he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to hold a trilateral summit with their Greek Cypriot counterpart on Jan. 28, 2016, to discuss energy cooperation.

In the preliminary agreement settled by Turkish and Israeli officials to normalize relations which was leaked to Israeli daily Haaretz last week, “cooperation on natural gas” stands as one of the main articles. Moreover, the most viable option to export Israel’s gas is to transport it to Turkey via an underwater gas pipeline.

Hence, Liel said, Athens is on tenterhooks, watching the developments very carefully. According to Liel, this is why Turkey and Israel need to reconcile by the trilateral meeting on Jan. 28, 2016. 

Liel also critically noted that the Greek parliament recognized Palestine as a “state” three days ago, which Israel did not denounce strongly. “This is because Netanyahu doesn’t want to lose Greece. He is very worried about it,” he said. “This is why Ankara should join this equation as soon as possible.”

The other reason behind the time restriction is Russia. The crisis with Russia has pushed Turkey to try to diversify its energy resources. According to Liel, “If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wakes up tomorrow morning saying ‘let’s be friends again,’ this will remove Turkey’s main motivation to normalize relations with Israel.”

But could a final agreement be reached at all in only four weeks? Turkey’s and Israel’s redlines are still standing in the way of reconciliation.

Israel’s foremost priority is Hamas. Two to three attacks have been conducted in Jerusalem every day for the last 100 days, which is increasingly being called the “Third Intifada.” Hence the shutting down of Hamas’ operations in Turkey is the most sensitive issue for Israel.

Turkey’s redline, on the other hand, is lifting the embargo on the Gaza Strip. Yet these reciprocal sensitivities seem to be addressed. 

Liel underlined that the blockade on Gaza has been seriously eased since Netanyahu apologized to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2013 for the loss of nine lives on board the Mavi Marmara. He argued that a special role might be given to Turkey for the reconstruction of Gaza. Haaretz also reported last week that “Israel is interested in a significant easing of the blockade, as long as there are Turkish assurances that weapons and ammunition will not be smuggled into Gaza.” 

Moreover, for Hamas the end of the blockade is much more existential than carrying on its activities in Turkey. Hence Ankara seems to win much more than it will lose by reconciling with Israel.

Besides, Liel also added there has been no political opposition to the recently leaked reports on Turkey-Israel rapprochement except for a few names from the opposition parties.  

Nimrod Goren, who is the chairman of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (MITVIM), also told me on the phone that 44 percent of the Israeli people want to improve relations with Turkey for security cooperation, according to their recent survey.

Before concluding, Liel critically argued, “The officials of the two countries have finished their work. Now it’s the turn of the politicians.”

Hence it is worth reminding that Netanyahu does not need the approval of his cabinet or parliament in order to sign the final agreement. Yet this is not the case in Turkey, where the deal would need to be ratified by parliament if it is going to include the withdrawal of the legal cases against the Israeli soldiers who had raided the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010 (as was mentioned in the leaked agreement).

Last but not least, Liel made an interesting point on the reappointment of the ambassadors. Both countries had expelled the ambassador of the other and lowered diplomatic relations to the “second secretary” level. According to Liel, once the agreement is signed, they might upgrade the status of the current second secretaries to “ambassador” level instead of reappointing new ambassadors.