In a significant development that will enhance the security posture of each country, Turkey and Israel now appear close to concluding an agreement that would allow normalization of relations, including the return of ambassadors. On December 14th, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that the entire Middle East region would benefit from improvement of relations between Israel and Turkey. Following this, multiple media outlets reported on December 17th that Turkey and Israel had agreed to terms of an agreement for renewal of regular diplomatic ties. Subsequent comments from officials in Ankara and Jerusalem, including Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu seemed to confirm that the sides were close to attaining a final deal. Doing so will likely end the crisis that has afflicted their relations since December 2008.
It is important to point out that the crisis was never as deep as it appeared. The dispute had three major manifestations: rhetoric, significant reduction in military cooperation, and halt of arms sales from Israel to Turkey. However, anti-terror and limited security cooperation continued in this period. Moreover, trade between Turkey and Israel grew exponentially each year during the crisis and Tel Aviv ties with London for Turkish Airlines’ top foreign destination of daily flights.
Despite the rhetoric, the political leaderships in Jerusalem and Ankara kept communication channels open and continued to explore ways to get their relations back on track, albeit most likely not to the level of military cooperation of the pre-crisis period or the pre-Erdoğan period.
The most problematic factor is that the current timing of renewal of relations between Turkey and Israel is contingent to the crisis between Turkey and Russia, and may be the proximate cause for Ankara for renewal of ties with Israel.
Recent events in the region – mega-terror attack in Ankara, attacks on pipelines in the east of Turkey, the wave of terrorist attacks in Israel, increase in the refugee stream to Turkey, the Russian military deployment in Syria, continued strength of ISIS, and most crucial, Turkey’s conflict with Russia following the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces – accelerated the desire of both sides to find a way to increase their cooperation.
Israel and Turkey’s return to normal relations and cooperation has clearly been desired by Washington, which stands to gain by having two of its allies in the region end a years-long discord. And it is important to recall that Turkey and Israel share a large number of interests. First, both sides benefit highly from intelligence sharing on terror and other security threats. Turkey and Israel also support the preservation of the state system in the Middle East, and maintenance of current borders between states in the region. Both of their security orientations are built upon being part of the US-led security alliance and military cooperation is also facilitated by the fact that both are equipped with NATO standard armaments. Turkey and Israel also share security concerns about some of the same actors, such as Iran, and share strategic cooperation with some states, such as Azerbaijan.
At the same time, the sides are divided on many issues. Israel maintains cooperation with the main Kurdish groups based in Iraq and obviously Ankara and Jerusalem are divided over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. In recent years, Israel also has developed security cooperation with Cyprus and Greece.
However, the most problematic factor is that the current timing of renewal of relations between Turkey and Israel is contingent to the crisis between Turkey and Russia, and may be the proximate cause for Ankara for renewal of ties with Israel. This puts Israel in a difficult security situation. Israel maintains very good cooperation with Russia which it will not want to jeopardize. Also, Moscow, especially now that it has forces deployed in Syria, has significant means to coerce Israel: it can limit Israel’s flights over Syria, enable arms shipments to Hezbollah, and even threaten to deliver sophisticated weapons to Iran. In the current period, Russia has an interest to commit to the delivery of new weapons systems, as a way of preserving its senior alliance position with Tehran, now that Iran’s foreign policy options are expanding with the end of its isolation, and Israel is working to avert this. Moscow may demand Israel to refrain from security cooperation with Turkey in return for delaying delivery of certain weapon systems to Iran.
It is clear that with the current crisis with Russia, Turkey’s main supplier of natural gas, Ankara has a strong interest to signal to Moscow that it has options for alternative sources of gas and thus is not dependent on Russia.
According to press reports, Israel and Turkey agreed upon the renewal of ties to explore the prospects of exporting Israeli natural gas and building a pipeline from Israel to Turkey. It is clear that with the current crisis with Russia, Turkey’s main supplier of natural gas, Ankara has a strong interest to signal to Moscow that it has options for alternative sources of gas and thus is not dependent on Russia. As part of this drive, Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu and Azerbaijani President İlham Aliyev announced their intention to accelerate the completion of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which will bring additional gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Iran’s sudden cut in half of gas supplies to Turkey during the second half of December 2015, supposedly due to increased demand in Iran, but potentially motivated to signal Iranian solidarity with Russia, clearly added to Ankara’s sense of urgency to achieve access to additional gas supplies.
Even during the crisis period, Turkish and Israeli officials, including President Erdoğan and the successive ministers of energy in Turkey, spoke positively about the prospects of gas supply from Israel to Turkey and encouraged their companies to engage in negotiations. However, despite the new headwinds in political will, concluding a binding gas export contract and building a pipeline from Israel to Turkey will take years and still will need to overcome a number of major hurdles before it can be implemented. Among those challenge are securing investment in a multi-billion dollar export project especially under current oil market conditions, and facilitating a pipeline route that transits either the maritime exclusive economic zones of Syria and Lebanon or of Cyprus.
There is also risk involved in linking developments in the political relations between Ankara and Jerusalem to progress on gas exportation. Major gas production and export projects entail complicated negotiations that are always laden with conflicts, and it may be best to allow those negotiations to advance on a track separate from political and security cooperation.
The prospects of Israeli gas being exported to Turkey will also be influenced by developments in the crisis between Turkey and Russia. Not only is Russia the main supplier of gas to Turkey, but also Turkey is Russia’s second biggest gas export market. Thus, despite the crisis, both sides have a strong interest in keeping the gas supply stable. However, if the conflict continues, Turkey will seek increased imports from other sources to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. It may also seek an alternative to Iranian gas supplies, which have continually been unreliable and of low quality.
There might be a lesson from the current change in relations between Israel and Turkey for Turkey’s relations with Moscow and other neighbors. In the end, for Turkey, like with most states, state security interests overcome ideology, rhetoric, and leadership conflicts. Thus, just like Israel and Turkey, most likely, Russia and Turkey will also find a way of returning to normal sooner rather than later.