Eye on the Middle East May/Jun 2016

After nearly six years of discord, Turkey and Israel are working to repair bilateral relations. Reconciliation is said to be imminent.

Analysts say Turkey is motivated by a desire to obtain access to Israeli natural gas in order to reduce its dependence on energy resources from Russia.

Turkey currently imports half of its natural gas and 10 percent of its oil from Russia. But Turkish-Russian relations have been in turmoil since November 24, 2015, when a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian warplane that veered into Turkish airspace. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated against Turkey with a range of trade sanctions, although he has not cut off energy supplies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, apparently seeking to preempt Putin, is urgently looking for ways to diversify energy supplies away from Russia.

The Turkish-Israeli agreement, the broad contours of which have been hammered out in secret meetings in Switzerland, is said to include a provision for joint cooperation in the field of natural gas, including the possible construction of a pipeline to carry natural gas from Israel to Turkey. Erdogan apparently hopes such a pipeline will, over time, reduce Russia’s leverage over Turkey.

At the same time, Turkey has insisted that lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza is essential to any bilateral rapprochement. This may be in Israel’s interest. In February, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate, reportedly told a Knesset committee that the deteriorating economic situation in the Gaza Strip may lead to violence against Israel.

More problematic, however, are reports that Turkey has demanded unrestricted access to the Gaza Strip, ostensibly to deliver humanitarian supplies and build infrastructure. However, the demand may have more nefarious motives. Other reports indicate that Ankara is demanding the construction of a seaport in Gaza that would be controlled by the Turkish military.

Russia is said to be opposed to any deal that boosts Turkey’s influence in the Middle East. This message was delivered to the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dore Gold, during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on February 18.

Egypt is opposed to the prospect of more Turkish influence in Gaza, which borders the restive Sinai Peninsula. Egypt fears that Erdogan, a committed Islamist, will bolster the popularity of Hamas, which is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood that Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ousted from power in 2013.

As part of a deal, Israel wants Turkey to clamp down on Hamas operatives based in Turkey who are accused of directing terrorist operations in the Palestinian territories. Specifically, Israel wants Turkey to expel Saleh al-Arouri, a senior member of Hamas’s military wing, who is based in Istanbul.

Senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, are reportedly asking whether a deal with Turkey is worth the potential damage to Israel’s strategic alliance with Egypt.

Even if a deal is reached that satisfies all parties, relations between Turkey and Israel are unlikely to be as close as they once were.

“The golden era of cooperation in the security and intelligence fields between the two countries up until a decade ago will certainly not come back,” according to veteran Israeli analyst Yossi Melman. “If the golden formula is found, and the crisis is indeed solved, it will be part of a three-way deal: Israel-Egypt-Turkey, in which the strategic alliance with Egypt is much more important to Israel than rehabilitating ties with Turkey.”

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