Why Israel and Turkey Got Back Together

The Coming Cooperation on Syria and Energy

Michael J. Koplow
March 23, 2013

Exploratory drilling near the coasts of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel,
Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey has unearthed vast reserves of natural gas.
Competition over the rights to tap those resources is compounding
existing tensions over sovereignty and maritime borders. The eastern
Mediterranean is quickly becoming as volatile as its eastern cousin,
the South China Sea.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

After nearly three years of intense political feuding following the
Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara -- a ship carrying international
activists who were trying to break Israel's blockade on Gaza -- Turkey
and Israel agreed yesterday to resume diplomatic ties. In a phone call
with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the deaths of nine Turkish
citizens at the hands of Israeli forces and agreed to pay
compensation. In return, Erdogan agreed to normalize relations between
the two countries and to drop the prosecutions of Israeli officers in
connection with the flotilla raid. Turkey had previously demanded
that, in addition to apologizing and paying compensation, Israel lift
the blockade. In order to get around this last -- and thorniest --
condition, Netanyahu stressed that Israel has recently eased
restrictions on civilian goods coming into Gaza, and he agreed to work
with Turkey on improving the humanitarian situation there. The details
of the arrangement still need to be worked out, but it appears that
the two countries are well on their way to resuming cooperation in a
number of areas.

It has been clear for some time that Israel was willing to make an
apology to Turkey, but less clear whether Turkey would accept it. Now
that election season is over in Israel, Netanyahu no longer has to
worry about nationalist criticism over repairing ties with Turkey, and
the temporary exclusion of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
from the cabinet removed the biggest obstacle to reconciliation on the
Israeli side. But the politics in Turkey are a different story. The
Palestinian issue has made Israel deeply unpopular there, and the feud
has been politically valuable for Erdogan, who has been able to blast
Israel any time he has wanted to divert attention away from sensitive
domestic issues. Last month, for example, Turkish headlines were
dominated by the government's negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the
leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). When Erdogan
publically called Zionism a crime against humanity, he chased the
talks right off the front pages.

Given these domestic political benefits, Ankara has had little reason
to reconcile with Israel until now. This week's news, however, signals
that Turkey has finally come to realize that it has more to lose than
to gain from turning a cold shoulder to Israel. This is largely
because Turkey can use Israel's help on its most pressing foreign
policy dilemma, the Syrian civil war, and on its top economic concern,
energy security.

Sometimes, a reliable friend is better than a reliable adversary.

For Ankara, the Syrian crisis has been a major headache. Turkey has
suffered a loss in trade, been forced to rely on NATO for Patriot
missiles to defend against border threats, and accepted just under
half a million Syrian refugees. Ankara's demands for Assad to step
down have fallen on deaf ears, and its requests for NATO intervention
in the form of a no-fly zone and heavy arms for the Syrian rebels have
also been brushed aside.

All this has been unfortunate for Turkey's leaders, but it was the
recent introduction of Syrian chemical weapons into the equation that
really changed Turkey's calculus; now more than ever, the country
needs better intelligence and allies to bring an end to the civil war
or at least prevent it from spilling over. Turkey cannot afford to
have chemical weapons used anywhere near its border with Syria, and
the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chances of a chemical
weapons strike gone awry. Israel simply has better intelligence on
regional developments than Turkey does, and Turkey can use that help
to monitor Assad's weapons stores and troop movements on both sides.
In addition, whereas the United States and other NATO countries have
been reluctant to support the Syrian rebels in any meaningful way,
Israel has a greater incentive to make sure that the moderate Sunni
groups prevail over the more radical jihadist elements of the
opposition. As the situation in Syria heats up, Turkey and Israel will
be thankful that they can talk to each other and coordinate.

Another area in which Turkey needs Israel's assistance is energy.
Turkey's current account deficit, which stood at $48.8 billion in
2012, is almost entirely a result of the country's reliance on oil and
natural gas imports; Turkey has no natural resources of its own.
Furthermore, Turkey is paying through the nose for both Russian and
Iranian natural gas, due to onerous price contracts. Earlier this
month, I talked with a number of people in Turkey -- government
ministers, opposition politicians, business tycoons, and trade group
leaders -- and they all mentioned Turkey's growing energy needs and
lamented the country's overreliance on Russian and Iranian natural
gas. Israel, meanwhile, has just discovered two major natural gas
basins, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, off its coast in the Eastern
Mediterranean. Since Turkey has no hope of smoothing over ties with
Cyprus, its longtime adversary, which has been the other main
beneficiary of the Mediterranean gas boom, it will likely turn to
Israel as a natural gas supplier. With Turkey's economic growth
slowing, Israel's potential as a partner makes reconciliation more
attractive now than at any point in recent years.

Other factors also made this week the ideal timing for Turkey to
accept an Israeli apology. For starters, doing so during President
Barack Obama's trip to the region allowed Erdogan to hand the
president a political victory. At the same time, Erdogan gets to claim
that he brought Israel to its knees just as Turkish nationalists were
gearing up to criticize him over negotiating with Ocalan and taking a
softer line with the Turkish Kurds. A significant segment of the
Turkish population still denies that there is a Kurdish problem and
sees any government effort toward easing tensions as capitulating to
terrorists. Following Ocalan's speech on Thursday, which signaled a
genuine break from the past by transforming the PKK's fight against
Turkey into a political struggle rather than an armed struggle,
Erdogan now has both the political space to resume ties with Israel
and the ability to spin the rapprochement with Israel as a nationalist
victory in which Israel has ceded to Turkish demands.

Squabbling with Israel had its benefits for Erdogan, but with so many
challenges facing Turkey, and with Obama pressuring both sides to make
up, the time was finally right to do so. For the first time since the
Mavi Marmara set sail, the economic and foreign policy gains that
Turkey will realize by patching things up with Israel far outweigh the
domestic political benefits of staying apart. Sometimes, a reliable
friend is better than a reliable adversary.


From: Baghdasarian