The rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, while not yet complete with an exchange of ambassadors, is already a reality in a Middle East that is changing before our very eyes.
While the two states continued to maintain diplomatic relations and embassies in each other’s capitals after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident off Gaza (in which nine Turks were killed), the disruption of relations between the two non-Arabic nations in the eastern Middle East was a blow to both countries’ diplomacy and to regional security.
But this rapprochement is strategically significant under the circumstances at present: an ISIS unbowed in Iraq and Syria; an emerging Russian–Syrian–Iranian–Lebanese Hezbollah “Shia Crescent” alliance threatening all the other states in the region; Turkey facing a growing insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K.; Israel at any moment facing an attack from Hamas out of Gaza; and, finally, continued reluctance on the part of the United States to play its traditional balancing and security provision roles.
This rapprochement will allow Turkey and Israel — two of America’s most important regional partners — to work more closely together to help manage the horrific strategic situation that threatens both countries from Iraq, Iran, and Syria (and from everywhere from ISIS and Al Qaeda offshoots).
This rapprochement is not an economic one; trade between the two countries has remained robust since 2010. Nevertheless, Turkey has long sought status as a regional natural gas hub, and this agreement could assist with that. With its existing Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) from Azerbaijan and its link to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline under construction, Turkey has its eye on gas from Israel’s huge new Leviathan offshore gas field.
If Turkey were able to buy and sell Leviathan gas (which Israel plans to export), along with eventual gas from Iraqi Kurdistan and via existing pipelines from Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran, it would become that “hub,” rather than the gas consumer and transit country it is today. This would be immensely profitable for Turkey and enhance markedly its geostrategic importance.
Turkey is currently dependent on Russia and Iran for 80 percent of its gas. With the growing conflict with Iran and Russia over Syria, Turkey is now even more anxious to find a more reliable gas partner.
Ironically, the possibilities of gas exports to Israel could well stimulate the Cyprus talks between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot populations, and ultimately between Turkey and Greece, as any pipeline between Israel and Turkey would have to transit Cypriot waters (which abut Lebanese waters, where Israel could not lay a pipeline due to the state of war between the two).
Given Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus and support of the island’s Turkish minority, the Greek Cypriots who control Cyprus would not grant transit without progress in talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.
A breakthrough on Cyprus would have a stabilizing effect in the entire Eastern Mediterranean and on Turkey’s thorny relations with the European Union, which has traditionally sided with its member states Greece and Cyprus in the dispute.
The diplomatic advantages of policy coordination between Turkey and Israel are significant. Both maintain excellent trade, intelligence, and, to some degree, even military relations with oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Both are now closely aligned with Saudi Arabia (the other major U.S. partner in the region), other Gulf states, and Jordan. In fact, in some ways, Israel has even better relations, albeit informal, with these Arab states than Turkey, given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s erratic behavior and Islamic proclivities. Finally, a breakthrough in relations would give Erdoğan a real diplomatic victory in a region where his friends have declined now to only one — the semi-state of Kurdistan.
Given doubts about American willingness to play a central role in Middle East security following Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and unwillingness to intervene at all in Syria or forcefully against ISIS, this rapprochement makes real sense. Turkey and Israel have two of the strongest militaries in the region, with first-rate American equipment, and in extremis can draw on their close security ties with even a reluctant United States. Despite their individual strengths, the plethora of destabilizing agents in the region now — from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s airplanes to Iran’s militias, along with Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and the Assad regime — place each under stress. There is strength in unity.
That said, this is a marriage of convenience, not love. The Israelis have been so burned by Turkish President Erdoğan’s trashing of decades of close Turkish–Israeli relations that they might well balk at locking in hopes of long-term good relations with Ankara by investing billions of dollars in an undersea gas pipeline.
Erdoğan, for his part, clearly has no love for Israel, and has maintained a cool relationship with Turkey’s own Jewish minority. In particular, Erdoğan’s strong sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, including the bitterly anti-Israeli Hamas regime in Gaza, and the Egyptian Brotherhood which is under extreme pressure from Israel’s close ally, the Sisi government, will limit cooperation and any real warmth. Nonetheless, when friends are few, and the wolves are circling, calculated friends are better than none. Until the region stabilizes more, initiatives like this are about as positive a development as we are likely to see.
James F. Jeffrey served as the United States Ambassador to Iraq (2010-2012), as the United States Ambassador to Turkey (2008-2010), and as the Deputy National Security Advisor (2007-2008). He is currently the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute where he focuses on U.S. regional, diplomatic, and military strategy, as well as Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
This article first appeared in TheMarkNews