Why are Turkey and Israel reconciling now?
“Knowing what you’ve got, knowing what you need, knowing what you can do without. That’s inventory control.”
This statement uttered by the main character in the movie “Revolutionary Road” is actually the rationale behind normalization between Turkey and Israel. Nowadays the two countries need exactly the same thing and they know that they cannot go on without cooperating with each other. This was also verified by the messages given by Israeli Consul General in Istanbul Shai Cohen during our tete-a-tete last Wednesday.
First of all, the region is in rags and tatters. The deep wave of terror and instability spreading from within Iraq and Syria encircle Turkey from its southern borders and Israel from its north, to the extent that their perpetuity starts getting threatened.
Moreover, Iraq and Syria are getting more and more into Iran’s orbit. On top of that, Iran is rapidly moving towards becoming the U.S.’ partner. Hence Israel, which considers Iran its main enemy, and Turkey, which sees Iran as its chief rival in the region, feel urged to cooperate.
Furthermore, the U.S. is truly passive in the region. This further pushes the two countries toward each other and explains why Cohen said, “Ultimately, we cannot escape enhancing intelligence sharing and even cooperating on an operational basis in Syria.”
Yet Turkey and Israel are not alone in this equation; Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also at its center.
Turkey’s policy towards Syria overlaps fully with the ones of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Hence these two countries are currently Ankara’s main allies in the region. Israel, on the other hand, is getting closer and closer to the Saudis behind the scenes, even if not openly. The main reason behind this rapprochement is their common hostility toward Iran. So much so that, according to the Panama Papers, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz sponsored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign last year by giving him $80 million.
This rapprochement was exactly what lay behind the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia during King Salman’s five-day visit to Egypt in April. These islands, Tiran and Sanafir, which had been controlled by Cairo since 1950, were beforehand under the auspices of Saudi Arabia. The two countries had been negotiating this issue for six years, however Israel opposed the transfer of the islands, worrying it would block Israel’s entrance to the Red Sea. Hence this agreement actually hints at a consensus between Israel and Saudi Arabia, rather than between the Egyptians and the Saudis.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon also made this public by saying they had reached an agreement between the four parties, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the U.S., on this transfer. Meanwhile Egypt-Saudi Arabia relations had peaked upon Saudi support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup d’état in 2013.
This all indicates an emerging alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which in turn makes the interests of Turkey and Egypt coincide to a great extent. Therefore the ice might also slowly melt in the cold war between Turkey and Egypt.
Beyond all these, the vast amounts of natural gas which Israel recently discovered offshore in an eastern Mediterranean area, called the “Leviathan field,” further pushes Turkey and Israel to cooperate, as a gas pipeline transferring Israeli gas through Turkey to Europe would be most profitable for both countries.
On the other hand, the Sunni-Shiite rift has sharply split the region into two fronts. Turkey needs to strengthen its relations with the regional actors who are not directly part of this clash. And the only three powers in this cluster are Israel, Egypt and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
This context seems to have forced Turkey and Israel to find a midway point. Cohen’s messages during our conversation also hinted that the red lines of the two sides, which are Hamas for Israel and the Gaza blockade for Turkey, still remain. Yet, apparently Israel is going to provide Turkey with a special role in Gaza’s reconstruction.
In return for this convenience provided by Israel, Turkey will probably become more sensitive of its relations with Hamas. In short, the sensitivities of both sides will be reciprocally fulfilled to a great extent. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that for Hamas, lifting the blockade is much more existential than its activities in Turkey.
As a result of this inventory control, Turkey seems to win much more than it will lose by reconciling with Israel.