Intelligence Report: Turkish Breakthrough

Regional circumstances have pushed Turkey to look for a rapprochement with Israel, but will its erratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan really be willing to about face?

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December 25, 2015 09:20
Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan greets religious leaders at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, November 26. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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ISRAELI EUPHORIA was perhaps premature.

In mid-December, local media announced a dramatic breakthrough in relations between Israel and Turkey. According to reports, representatives of the two governments agreed, following a secret meeting in Zurich, to resolve their almost six-year-old differences.

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Israel was represented by Yossi Ciechanover, a private lawyer and former director general of the Foreign Ministry, and Yossi Cohen, the head of the National Security Council and newly appointed head of the Mossad.

Both men have years of experience in dealing with Turkey. Ciechanover is the special emissary and point man of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the talks with Turkey, which was represented by Feridun Sinirlioğlua, the director general of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

As head of the National Security Council, Cohen dealt with the Turkish file alongside Ciechanover. Cohen intends to continue his involvement in the case even after assuming his new office as head of the Mossad.

The meeting in Switzerland followed many previous rounds of talks aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were degraded following the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, when a Turkish boat carrying mostly Turkish Islamist activists and supporters of Hamas tried to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Israeli commandos boarded the Marmara after it disobeyed an order to halt its voyage and were met with violent resistance. In the clashes, nine Turkish citizens were killed and several Israeli naval commandos injured.

Following the clash, Turkey recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv to Ankara, and both countries have since been represented by a chargé d’affaires.

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkish prime minister and now the republic’s president, set several conditions for the restoration and normalization of relations with Israel, including an Israeli apology for the killing of the Turkish citizens; payment of compensation to the victims’ families; and lifting the blockade of Gaza.

The first obstacle was removed when Cohen and Ciechanover reached a deal with their Turkish counterparts, which was agreed on in principal at previous meetings and reconfirmed at the last meeting in Zurich, for Israel to pay $20 million to a special fund that would distribute money to the families of the dead and wounded.

In March 2013, during a visit to Israel by Barack Obama, Netanyahu, under pressure from the US president, apologized in a phone call to Erdoğan, an act that drew scathing criticism from his then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman. But that apology was not enough to satisfy Erdoğan who continued to insist that without the Gaza blockade being lifted no deal would be reached.

In the summer of 2014, Israel and Hamas fought a third war, which resulted in the deaths of 2,200 Palestinians – around half of them civilians – and huge damage to civilian infrastructure, while on the Israeli side, 72 servicemen and civilians were killed.

That war in Gaza brought more wrath from Erdoğan, who stepped up accusations that Israel was committing atrocities against Muslims.

At the time of the Mavi Marmara incident and in the years that followed, Erdoğan brimmed with confidence that he was on his way to accomplishing his dream of being a modern day Sultan.

But, in the last year, the tide has turned against him.

On the domestic front, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party lost its majority in a general election in June 2015 and was forced to call new elections in November, which he won in a landslide.

But that victory came at the expense of a resurgence of the bitter and violent struggle with the Kurdish minority, which could yet spread from the eastern parts of the country to Istanbul itself and even deteriorate into civil war.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s foreign policy is collapsing.

Its central pillar was “zero disputes with neighbors,” but Turkey is currently involved in conflicts with all its neighbors – Syria, Iraq and Iran – and with the Kurdish communities in these countries.

Unwittingly, or having miscalculated, Erdoğan in late November ordered his air force to down a Russian military aircraft operating in Syria along the border with Turkey. The incident resulted in a furious response from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who instituted a range of economic sanctions, including halting the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey, which had been the top destination for Russian tourists with 3.5 million Russians visiting each year.

PUTIN HAS promised further measures and more action. Turkey depends on Russian gas, and Erdoğan fears that Putin may freeze or cut the flow of gas to Turkey as he did a few years ago to Ukraine. The gas issue is one of the reasons there is a chance to normalize relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, as Israel may be able to reach agreement with Turkey to supply gas from its Tamar and Leviathan fields.

On another front, Obama in mid-December called Erdoğan and urged him to withdraw Turkish troops stationed in Northern Iraq, after Baghdad labeled the Turkish presence an “illegal incursion.”

Turkey, thus, is finding itself more internationally isolated than ever, which has prompted Erdoğan to turn to Israel to repair relations while somehow keeping his pride intact.

Knowing and being aware of all these developments, Israel is trying to take full advantage of Erdoğan’s dire condition.

Netanyahu is ready to improve relations with Turkey, though economically speaking, trade between the two – $5 billion in bilateral trade annually – is booming.

But Israel, too, has its conditions. Jerusalem demands that the Turkish parliament pass a law prohibiting the indictment of Israeli soldiers and officers in Turkish and international courts for their involvement in the Mavi Marmara incident.

More importantly, Israel demands the expulsion of Salah Aruri, a senior Hamas military commander who is working from Turkish soil. Aruri spent 15 years in an Israeli jail for terrorist acts and was released in 2007, but continued to be involved in the military wing of Hamas.

Israel expelled him to Jordan, and from there he moved to the safe haven of Erdoğan’s Turkey, which, together with Qatar, is the guardian of the Gaza-based Islamist movement.

From Turkey, Aruri planned and ordered dozens of terrorist attacks by Hamas operatives in the West Bank, including the kidnapping and murder of three young Jewish students in June 2014, which eventually led to the outbreak of the last war in Gaza.

If Erdoğan agrees to the expulsion of Aruri and the dismantling of the Turkish- based Hamas command post, it will be a major security achievement for Israel, and can be described only as “caving in” by the Turkish president.

Both countries are interested in opening a new chapter in their relations and closing the traumatic Marmara incident and its aftermath and, indeed, have agreed to do so in the Swiss talks by commencing negotiations to supply Israeli natural gas from the Mediterranean basin to Turkey. One of the major pillars of Netanyahu’s gas strategy is exports to neighboring countries such as Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

Nevertheless, improving relations with Turkey may have a negative ricochet effect.

Since Turkey changed course and downgraded its ties with Israel, Jerusalem has replaced Ankara with a new strategic alliance with Greece and Cyprus, who also want energy cooperation with Israel.

This alliance expresses itself in close intelligence and security cooperation, and joint military exercises. In January, the leaders of the three countries are due to meet in Nicosia to cement the alliance.

Surely, Athens and Nicosia would not be happy to see Israel and their sworn enemy back in the same bed. The same goes for Russia.

If indeed Israel and Turkey clinch a deal, Jerusalem will have to reassure its allies that it won’t be at their expense.

Yet a deal is no certainty. It all depends on Erdoğan, and he is unpredictable and unreliable. Israel has no intentions to make any compromises with Hamas as, beyond its own domestic political considerations, such steps would anger another important Israel ally – Egypt, as well as the Palestinian Authority. Still, Israel is ready to make some small gestures in Gaza on the humanitarian front to satisfy Erdoğan and help him to portray himself as Hamas’s savior. The big question is will those gestures be enough to save face for the Turkish president.

Even if relations are normalized, they will never return to the levels of the ’80s and ’90s when the two countries were allies and cooperated in the fields of intelligence and security against common rivals and enemies, such as Syria and Iran.

Those glorious days were over even before the bloody event of the Marmara.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman


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