Turkey-Israel relations will normalize soon

Turkey-Israel relations will normalize soon

“Turkey-Israel relations will normalize soon.” These words were uttered by a high-level Turkish official with whom I had a tête-à-tête this week in Ankara. His statement gains much more weight in light of the fact that he is someone who is following the Turkey-Israel talks very closely.

Before jumping to the questions “how” and “when,” let’s have a short flash-back on how we got to this point.

It was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who gave the first signal about the normalization when he spoke at a panel in Jerusalem on Nov. 20, 2015. “Despite the difficult situation in diplomatic relations, the trade volume between Turkey and Israel is at its highest level in history. And there is a possible opportunity for cooperation with Turkey on natural gas reserves found in the Mediterranean,” Netanyahu said at the time.

While we were still asking ourselves where this out-of-the-blue move had come from, a second signal came from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaking on the sidelines of the climate summit in Paris on Nov. 30. When an Israeli radio reporter asked him if bilateral relations can be fixed, he replied surprisingly, “Why not, once our conditions are met?”

When I posed the same question to Erdoğan during a press meeting in Paris, he reminded me of Ankara’s preconditions for normalization. “Our demand for an apology has been met,” he said. “But the compensation issue and the Gaza blockade question have still not been settled.”

Immediately after this, a Turkish official with whom I spoke in Ankara suggested that “a recovery in relations might take place soon.” 

The course of events further accelerated on Dec. 17 when Haaretz reported news that came as a bombshell. According to the report, the two countries had reached a preliminary agreement shaped mainly by Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yossi Cohen.

The most recent senior statement on the issue came from Erdoğan upon his return from Saudi Arabia on Dec. 31. “Israel needs a country like Turkey in the region,” he said. “We need to accept that we also need Israel.”

So I wanted to test the waters on the issue in Ankara. The high-level Turkish official who I quoted at the start of this column explained to me where the two countries stand at present. 

The first criteria for normalization set by Turkey was an apology from Israel. That was realized by Netanyahu long ago in 2013. Since then, media reports have said the two countries have already agreed on the amount of compensation to be paid by Israel to the families of the victims of the 2010 Gaza-bound flotilla raid. The Turkish official I spoke to also confirmed this, saying the issue has been finalized.

Turkey has also insisted that Israel lifts its siege on Gaza in return for normalizing relations. According to my source, this condition will be interpreted as meaning “lifting the embargo on Turkey.” In other words, what Ankara asks is for it to become easy for Turkey to deliver aid to Gaza, and that third countries are able to supply aid to Gaza via Turkey. 

In return, Israel is said to be asking Ankara to make sure Hamas halts its activities in Turkey. In line with the official Turkish discourse so far, my source claimed that Hamas has not been operating in Turkey at all. 

Now, what about the “Aruri case”? Israel had asked Turkey to deport Saleh al-Aruri, one of Hamas’ leading figures who is accused by Israel of organizing terrorist attacks in the West Bank. Al-Aruri was deported from the West Bank five years ago and has since been exiled in Turkey. It is reported that al-Aruri has been a key matter in negotiations between Turkey and Israel and Ankara has fulfilled Israel’s demand to ask al-Aruri to leave.

My source claims that al-Aruri has not been in Turkey “for a long time,” but revealed no further details. He did, however, suggest that al-Aruri moved to Turkey with the knowledge and approval of Israel, in line with an official agreement between the two countries. “He stayed in Turkey because Israel said he could,” he said.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visited Ankara immediately after Haaretz reported the preliminary agreement in December. My Turkish official source said Meshaal did not express any discomfort about Turkey-Israel normalization. Indeed, for Hamas the lifting of the blockade is an even more existential issue than continuing its activities in Turkey. 

Last but not least: When will the final agreement be signed? “Very soon. Only one or two nuances remain that need to be fixed,” my source said. What about the mutual appointment of ambassadors? “Immediately, right after the agreement is signed.”