The implication of Turkish-Israeli rapprochement
Jason EpsteinAs the wide body aircraft made its way to the gate at John F. Kennedy Airport on the night of Dec. 17, one of the first e-mails that showed up on my iPhone was from a friend with whom I had dined in Istanbul several days earlier. The message consisted of a link to an article entitled, “Five Years After Gaza Flotilla Raid, Israel and Turkey Reach Understandings on Ending Crisis,” along with his words, “What did I tell you?”
These understandings include compensating the families of those anti-Israel activists killed during the Israeli interception of the vessel and dropping of related lawsuits against Israel in Turkey, opening of negotiations on the building of an underwater pipeline to bring natural gas from Israel to Turkey and the return of ambassadors to Ankara and Tel Aviv.
To be clear, no final agreement has been reached. For example, it’s still unclear whether Israel’s gradual easing of restrictions on goods entering Hamas-controlled Gaza will satisfy President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s longstanding demand that the blockade, enforced by Israel and Egypt, be completely lifted. Also murky is what will become of the Israeli insistence that Hamas operations on Turkish soil be shuttered.
The timing of the announcement may have surprised me but reports of high-level talks on the subject between the nations’ top professional diplomats began long before tensions between Ankara and Moscow had escalated, culminating in the shooting down of a Russian combat aircraft inside Turkish airspace last month and retaliatory economic sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military foray into Syria at summer’s end appeared to provide additional motivation for Erdoğan to cozy up to Israel as a way of shoring up his regional position, including taking the needed steps to become less reliant on Russian gas. Still, Israel, which, like Turkey, has been groping with the effects of the collapse of American influence in the region, is treading carefully. As one Israeli political expert said to me, military coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow regarding Syria is “very elaborate, with both sides doing their utmost to avoid confrontation.”
A former Israeli diplomat who remains in close contact with the Foreign Ministry made clear that, although both states want to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad toppled and Iranian influence rolled back, echoed that sentiment: “[Rapprochement] will not come at the expense of Israel’s relations with Russia. Israel has apparently succeeded in achieving important strategic understandings on Syria with Putin on deconfliction and areas of mutual interest.”
Indeed, there has been speculation in Israeli media that the recent missile strike that a wink-wink-nod-nod from the Kremlin was needed before a recent missile struck a house just outside Damascus, killing several Hezbollah officials.
Israel’s relations with both Greece and Greek Cyprus should be taken seriously as well. While Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated several years ago, Israeli found new allies in the Hellenic world and any restoration of ties with Turkey or Turkish Cyprus won’t come at the expense of Israel’s new friends.
American Jewish groups will also remain cautious. Even before the Mavi Marmara incident, they had grown to loathe Erdoğan; those feelings have hardened with time. And like the Israelis, they have become close with Greece and Greek Cyprus. Accordingly, it would be a mistake to expect these groups to do any heavy lifting on Capitol Hill and the White House on behalf of Ankara anytime soon. One organizational leader attempted to be diplomatic: “There’s hope that, despite Erdoğan’s ideology, realpolitik will win the day and he’ll see it’s in Turkey’s interest to make nice.”
Interestingly, this Cyprus challenge also presents an exciting opportunity. A natural gas pipeline from Israeli offshore fields to Turkey will need to transit Cypriot territorial waters. While at first blush this may seem problematic, it may provide the final push needed to bring an end to the island’s 50+ year old dispute. Even as the Greek and Turkish communal leaders have made tangible progress in their negotiations, they can now see how a new Republic of Cyprus would have their own offshore gas reserves tapped and transported alongside Israeli hydrocarbons to an energy-hungry Turkish market.
And while both the transport of billions of cubic meters of Israeli gas to Turkey and Cyprus peace deals easily qualify as game changers, perhaps the most visible reward of a rapprochement will take place in another 12 months when a new president of the United States gets sworn into office, one who is likely to re-assert American influence in a dangerously turbulent eastern Mediterranean and back its strategic allies, Turkey and Israel.
*Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, a public policy consultancy based in Washington, D.C.