Israel-Turkey relations: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer
by Martin Jay
Jan 15, 2016 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Martin Jay
Jan 15, 2016 12:00 am
Ankara's new talks with the Israeli government stems from the change in political balances in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Mavi Marmara case and the blockade on the Gaza Strip are still on Ankara's agenda
Within the ever-changing kaleidoscope of regional relations, Turkey is now poised to restore diplomatic relations with Israel, winning an important hand in the spat with Russia sparked from the downed Su-24. Recent reports paint a gloomy picture of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's power being compromised in the central Asia region due to Moscow bullying many of the CIS into breaking diplomatic and trade ties with Ankara. Some of these accounts are exaggerated and not at all objective. Yet regardless of whether there is a kernel of truth in Erdoğan needing a new power base, Turkey restoring relations with Israel is not only a smart move, but one well overdue.
Relations have been in crisis since 2010, when 10 Turkish activists were killed in a raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish boat - the Mavi Marmara - which was trying to breach the blockade on the Gaza Strip, an attack which went viral on the internet due to the gruesome aggression displayed by Israel.
Erdoğan sees much to be gained to getting into the Gaza Strip and helping with the reconstruction there, but has stressed that the families of those who were killed on the Mavi Marmara must be compensated before hands are shaken and photoshoots are staged But there's much more to the prize of establishing cordial relations with Israel than meets the eye. Syria's civil war is making all regional players look at restoring relations with old foes, regardless of how much pride has to be swallowed. And it has shown us that Israel is nowhere near as hated or loathed by Arab countries as the media would like us to believe. Just recently the Israelis opened a diplomatic mission in the UAE, for example. And Saudi Arabia has just set up a new 34-member state anti-terrorism coalition to brainstorm new ways of dealing with 'terrorism' in Syria and elsewhere - designed either as a diplomatic tool to be used with Iran and Russia, or perhaps even a military one to be used on the battlefield.
In either scenario, Erdoğan will play a pivotal role in liaising with Iran. But now with restored relations with Israel a probability, this 'shuttle diplomacy' role will be enhanced as Saudi Arabia cannot be seen to be talking to the 'enemy' - while both the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom and Israel both share an identical policy in Syria, which broadly fits with Turkey's: all things are possible, but first Assad has to go.
Having good relations with Israel places Erdoğan and Turkey in a unique position. EU mandarins in Brussels will see Turkey's role enhanced - as a super diplomat - and might wish to up the stakes on Turkey's membership bid, given that Israel has broken off relations with the EU as a rather petulant reaction to new labelling laws on goods made in the occupied areas.
There's much to play for. Since the Russia debacle, Erdoğan has moved quickly on energy and looked for new partners, knowing that Russian President Vladimir Putin could turn off the taps at any moment. Israel's normal relations with Turkey getting back to what they were before the flotilla incident have raised hopes of speedy progress in talks to import Israeli natural gas, potentially a multi-billion-dollar project, particularly since Turkey's relationship with major energy producer Russia has deteriorated and Ankara feels uneasy about being dependent on the Iranians.Yet gas or no gas, it is unlikely that the compensation issue over those who perished in the flotilla fiasco will spoil the broth. A more likely spoiler is those regional enemies of Turkey who would like to push a stick in the spokes of the revolving deal.
Egypt's ability to lobby Washington will be key to what a new relationship can yield. Egyptian officials are concerned about how a role for Turkey in Gaza, which borders Egypt's Sinai province, could threaten its own security. Such bed-wetting by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's entourage is a little far-fetched, although there's no shortage of pressroom wasters, who for a few shillings will extend this idea to "Egypt lending power to a top adversary, as well as causing security concerns by propping up Islamist forces," as one gushed recently.
And of course there's the Iranians and their proxies. Tehran will be irked by any deal between Israel and Turkey but will stretch its tolerance to new levels. Iran always backed Hamas in the Gaza Strip financially and the idea of sharing that role with Turkey might prove awkward, especially given that Ankara's new role will be one of 'partner' with Israel rather than archenemy. Given the rumors of Iran's proxy army in Lebanon, Hezbollah, waiting for the right time to plan a revenge attack on Israel for a recent assassination of one of its top fighters, does Israel hit back by simply bombing Turkish reconstruction initiatives in the Gaza Strip?
Hezbollah and its Iranian paymasters have many reasons to hit back at Israel and any of its allies in the war. Bizarrely, the Shiite movement has a propensity to see Israel as an ally of Saudi Arabia when it comes to the Syria war, and Riyadh's recent decision to execute the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr is an incendiary act which no doubt will fan the flames of Hezbollah's wrath in the region. Israel is an obvious target for Hezbollah as it knows, if attacked with measured, calculated strikes that Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu won't retaliate with war. The firebrand leader may have recently told the EU where it can get off, but the same tough words would be wasted on the Lebanese movement which, contrary to the rhetoric which Israel spreads about it being cash-strapped, has a military capability which must keep a number of Israeli Generals tossing and turning in their beds at night. Meanwhile in Ankara, no one's losing any sleep about a new relationship with Israel giving the Sissi regime a flea it its ear.
* The Daily Mail correspondent in Beirut and a senior writer at Newsweek Middle East @MartinRJay