On the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a private meeting with Israel's energy minister, Yuval Steinitz. It was the highest level contact between Israel and Turkey since diplomatic relations broke down six years ago after Israeli forces raided a Turkish ship bound for Gaza, killing 10 Turkish civilians.
The meeting, which lasted 20 to 30 minutes and whose details have not been previously disclosed, discussed the war in Syria, Iran's presence there, terrorism - and natural gas. That last item is a key driver of efforts to forge a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey: At stake are reserves of natural gas worth hundreds of billions of dollars under the waters of Israel and Cyprus. To exploit them Israel will likely require the cooperation of Turkey.
In an interview at his office in Jerusalem, Steinitz confirmed the Washington meeting. "It was in a very good atmosphere," he said. "I don't want to say more than that ... I'm a great proponent of this effort to resume diplomatic relations with Turkey."
Since the Washington meeting, high-level envoys from Turkey and Israel have talked privately in Geneva and London to hammer out a deal on restoring relations between the former allies. Discussions have at times become bogged down: Israel wants Turkey to cut ties with Hamas representatives based in Turkey; Ankara wants reassurances on providing aid to Palestinians in Gaza, among other things.
A senior Turkish official said he was not aware of the meeting and said it would have been outside normal protocol for a president to meet a minister.
Overall, though, Israeli officials believe an agreement can be reached in the coming weeks. "We have resolved 80 to 90 percent of the difficulties, or gaps, and now with a little bit of goodwill and flexibility on both sides we can reach the remaining items," Steinitz said. "I think we are pretty close [to normalising relations]."
There have also been positive noises from Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on June 7 that Ankara was "one or two meetings away" from normalising ties with Israel. However, he did not put a timeframe on the process.
Steinitz says a deal with Egypt remains an option. But Israel is also turning towards exploring a pipeline to Turkey, both for consumers there and as a connection to Europe. A third option is a Cyprus-Greece-Europe route.
As a result, restoring relations with Ankara is now a linchpin in Israel's strategy to unlock its natural gas wealth. "Turkey would very much like to diversify its energy imports and resources," said Steinitz, when pressed about the restoration of ties between the countries. "They don't want to be dependent on one source, or two sources of energy."
RUSSIA CONNECTIONTurkey imports the bulk of its gas from Russia. But Ankara's ties with Moscow are strained, particularly over the Syrian conflict after a Turkish fighter plane shot down a Russian jet last November. In 2015, Turkey trimmed its imports of Russian gas by 300 million cubic metres to around 27 billion cubic metres (bcm) a year, to the annoyance of Moscow.
Yet Turkey's rapidly growing economy still consumes 50 bcm of gas a year and demand is set to double over the next seven or eight years, analysts say. Diversifying supply will be important. "They need other sources, reliable sources, of gas," said Steinitz. "We have an interest to export Israeli gas and to have export options - not to be totally dependent on one country for our exports. So it's a very good opportunity here."
Turkish energy companies share that view. Both Zorlu Enerji and a consortium of Turcas and Enerjisa have been in talks with Israel over gas prices and potential pipeline routes. Building a pipeline to Turkey or Egypt is about the same distance, around 540 km (340 miles), and about the same cost, around $3 billion. Turkey is more attractive because of its position as a gateway to Europe.
About the author
Research Associate at Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University