Diplomacy · International Relations

Turkey and Israel resume relations after six years

Twenty-sixteen is proving to be quite a critical year with a variety of notable incidents ranging from natural calamities to changing dynamic in on-going conflicts to presidential campaigns to states valuing sovereignty over regionalism taking place across the world. And while the world’s attention was focused on the United Kingdom exiting the European Union (EU) also known as Brexit, a very significant incident between Israel and Turkey was being ironed out.

Six years ago on 31st May, Israel raided a fleet of Turkish ships travelling towards the Gaza Strip. Known as the Gaza flotilla raid, the incident featured Israeli Navy commandos intercepting and attacking Mavi Marmara one of the six ships of the flotilla attempting to breach the Israeli blockade, which resulted in the death of ten Turkish citizens who were pro-Palestine activists. Diplomatic relations between the two states were severed since this incident took place in 2010. The flotilla consisted of six civilian ships and was organised by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İHH). The ships carried humanitarian and construction materials and intended to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Turkey and Israel were once very close allies in the region sharing many strategic interests in the spheres of economy, military cooperation, politics and security. However, from a few years prior to this incident, relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv were running cold, so the incident in 2010 merely finalised the rift in the relations. Soon after the flotilla incident, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv indicating a suspension in the diplomatic relations between the two countries. This also led to the interruption of the strong military cooperation between the two countries. Owing to this incident and the standstill in relations, Turkey reversed decades of reserved relations with its immediate neighbours Iran, Iraq and Syria, renewing commercial and political ties with them.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at simultaneous news conferences in Ankara and Rome that the two countries will be normalising relations. The talks for this restoration in ties commenced three years ago in 2013, after Prime Minister Netanyahu telephoned Erdogan, then Turkish prime minister, to convey that the Mavi Marmara incident were “unintentional” and to “express regret” over the loss of life. Ankara insisted that Tel Aviv meet three key conditions for the normalisation of ties; an official apology from Israel, compensation for the victims and the ending of the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Thus far it appears the first two conditions have been met by the Israeli counterparts. Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim said the deal would see Israel pay $20m in compensation to the victims of the attacks. It will also allow Turkey to send aid to Gaza and carry out infrastructure projects in the Palestinian territory.

Even though Israel has approved Turkish aid and humanitarian assistance to pass through into the Gaza Strip, they have stated that the blockade will remain. “The total embargo imposed on Palestine and on the Gaza region in particular, is to be lifted to a great extent through Turkey’s leadership,” asserted Yildirim. But Netanyahu said Israel’s “defensive maritime blockade” of Gaza, which is dominated by the militant Islamist movement Hamas, would remain in place. He added that “this is a supreme security interest of ours. I was not willing to compromise it. This interest is essential to prevent the force build-up by Hamas and it remains as has been and is.” Israel maintains its blockade of Gaza to try to prevent weapons or materials reaching Palestinian militants, with whom it fought an aggressive war in 2014. Although there are conflicting views on the blockade in place, it is notable that Israel has permitted Turkey to send humanitarian aid to the area. “To this end, our first ship loaded with over 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid will leave for Israel’s Ashdod port on Friday,” Yildirim said.

With the normalisation of ties and the signing of agreements between the two states, ambassadors will soon be appointed to the diplomatic missions in the respective capitals. This is a remarkable stepping stone signifying the resumption of relations between the two countries.

Why resume relations?

There are several interpretations into the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries. One interpretation is that Turkey resolved to end this enmity with Israel due to its growing diplomatic problems with Russia, the Europe as a whole and its policy towards Syria. Netanyahu endorsed the deal, stating that it was “of strategic importance to Israel,” and that it helped ensure security, regional stability and strengthened the Israeli economy. “The world is in turmoil, the Middle East is in turmoil and my policy is to create centres of stability in this unstable and stormy region,” he added in his remarks.

The Syrian issue is another probable reason as to why the two countries sought to restore their severed relations. Both sides are concerned about security threats boiling out of a collapsing Syria, especially the Islamic State. And with Russia throwing its military might behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and behind groups hostile to Turkey and Israel, the two countries saw reason to rally together. Both countries feel threatened by the Russian presence in Syria and its support of groups within the country. This may be another reason as to why the two neighbouring countries are keen on normalising relations.

The third reason that can be cited as to why the two states would have ventured to re-establish relations, is because of energy security. Israel’s Leviathan gas field, one of the world’s largest gas discoveries in the past decade, was deemed a tool for cooperation, stability, security, and greater prosperity. Should the energy production commence in this area, trade in the region will improve tremendously.

Another reason that can be allured to is Israel’s apprehension about Turkey’s concerns regarding the Palestinians, especially because the latter has relations with Hamas. It is these concerns which led to the incident related to the military attack, which ultimately steered towards the souring of diplomatic relations between the two states. It is said the deal also includes a clause that Turkey will ban the pro-Palestine activities within the country in support of Israel, but it is still unclear as to whether Ankara has agreed to this clause. Turkey, however, has agreed to crack down on Hamas terrorists operating from Istanbul. 

What it means for the future

The normalisation of ties between the two countries is set to have an effect across the region. The resumption is geared to bolster economic cooperation in the region and even stabilise political relations not just between the two countries, but also with its neighbouring countries. In spite of these, sceptics are worried that Turkey, a Muslim country, is normalising relations with a country that is attacking their fellow brethren in Palestine.

One of the main benefits of sealing this deal is the economic stability it would bring to both countries. Bringing energy diplomacy into play, the deal could lead to a possible billion dollar project of building a natural gas pipeline from Israel’s field to Europe through Turkey. It is said that the desire to normalise relations between the two countries could be due to Turkish interests in gaining access to the Israeli natural gas deposits. This is a move by Turkey to not rely solely on Russian exports of gas which is approximately 60% of the country’s energy requirement. Therefore having an alternative supplier of energy is beneficial for this ancient commercial hub. The move could also reap economic benefits to Turkey not only in the energy sector but also in the tourism industry. In the past, Turkey’s coastal resorts attracted up to half a million Israeli tourists a year. Thus the resumption of relations could lead to an influx of wealthy Israeli tourists visiting the country’s plentiful tourist attractions ranging from exotic beaches to underground cities to sites of ancient civilizational and historic value. Turkey is currently facing a decline in its tourist industry due to the reduction in tourists from both Israel and Russia. Therefore, the hopeful influx of tourist arrivals will greatly benefit this geostrategic country straddled between east Europe and west Asia in the years to come.

Even though the blockade on Gaza will not be relaxed, Turkey has been allowed to be involved in Gaza’s economic development which would lessen the territory’s isolation in a deeply troubled region. Investment will be made in a series of development projects including residential buildings, a 200 bed hospital, a power station and a desalination plant for drinking water. Ankara has also been allowed to deliver humanitarian aid and non-military supplies to Gaza while making infrastructure investments.

The resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries is set to bring greater stability to the region via its military and security cooperation; an activity that was halted due to relations going south. Thus the two states will now be in a better position to address common security interests in the region especially in the fight against terror. The deal could lead to the resumption in the cooperation in weapons supply and the exchange of intelligence. Reports have documented that both these two states are supporting the Islamic State against the Assad regime in Syria, by Turkey buying oil and Israel providing medical assistance. Therefore, it can be assumed, that there will be greater interaction between the two countries in addressing and finding a solution for the security situation in Syria which is gravely affecting the entire region.

Consequently the two countries have a lot of work to do in terms of leveling their relations, going beyond the mere inking of their resumption of relations on paper. Both Israel and Turkey will have to work hard at ensuring their relations are not disrupted again due to actions that are state-driven. They will also have to be mindful about allowing the ‘Palestine factor’ determine the dynamics of their bilateral relations. Both states will have to show more maturity in conducting relations, not merely for their mutual interests, but for the interests of the region as an entirety. Therefore, it will be interesting to watch how these two states with similar security interests, interact and face matters related to the economy, energy and regional stability.

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