Following the deadly raid on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara in May 2010, Turkish-Israeli relations reached an unprecedented nadir.
The diplomatic crisis that followed the flotilla incident ended more than two decades of prosperous strategic ties between the two regional powerhouses.
Led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey conditioned reconciliation on an Israeli apology, monetary compensation to the families of the dead activists, and lifting of the Israeli blockade over the Gaza Strip. Despite Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s personal apology to then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s consent to pay compensation, the countries have so far failed to normalize their relations.
Recent developments in Turkey and Israel have led analysts to speculate that there is a possibility of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. Secret meetings between Israeli and Turkish senior officials as well as an encouraging statement by President Erdogan have furthered the impression that the moment is ripe for reconciliation.
Nevertheless, it seems that the most complicated hurdles to reconciliation: Turkey’s close relations with Hamas, its demand that Israel officially lift the blockade over Gaza, and energy security, have yet to be removed, suggesting that rapprochement might be premature.
To position itself as a central actor in the Muslim world, Turkey sought to take the leading role in the Palestinian issue away from other regional powers, such as Iran and Egypt.
As a party with deep Islamist roots, the AKP has courted the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas. Turkey officially hosted a Hamas delegation following the movement’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian Authority general elections. After Hamas leadership denounced Syrian President Assad’s war of against the rebels, the Syrian government closed Hamas’s Damascus headquarters and expelled its leaders. Iran, Syria’s ally, withdrew its financial and logistic support to Hamas. Turkey stepped in to become the movement’s patron, offering a safe haven for Hamas members, who operate from its soil.
The Turkish demand that Israel lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip stems from the Turkey’s effort to position itself as the patron of the Palestinian cause, but for Israel, the demand is a major hurdle to reconciliation.
In open conflict with Hamas, which controls Gaza, Israel feels that the next bloody round against Hamas is only a question of time. With the blockade lifted, Hamas and other Jihadist groups in Gaza will flood Gaza with sophisticated arms – in particular, long-range missiles that endanger Israel’s civilian population and military. As the 2014 war showed, consequences to Gaza’s civilian population can be disastrous.
One must wonder how Turkey, which invested heavily in positioning itself as the patron of Gaza, will react in the event of renewed outbreak of conflict between Israel and Hamas. After getting what it desires, Turkey might see itself free to resume its attacks on Israel in order to garner the support of Muslims across the region.
From an Israeli perspective, it is better to deal with the enemy it knows than with the enemy it does not know. Israel understands that uprooting Hamas is virtually impossible, and Gaza under a foe with which it fought several rounds and has ample intelligence about is preferable to an Islamic State-style group that could oust Hamas if conditions in Gaza deteriorate.
Paradoxically, over the years Israel has significantly eased the blockade of Gaza with the intention of keeping Hamas in power. If, as a result of an agreement with Turkey, Israel officially lifts the blockade, President Erdogan will leverage the achievement for personal gain at home and, based on his previous rhetoric, might further bully Israel whenever it serves his political goals. As the region undergoes a radical transformation, Israel does not want to look weak or reward a leader whose motives are suspicious.
Domestically, lifting the blockade will be highly unpopular. Israelis suffered greatly from Hamas suicide bombers and rockets. Facing a fragile coalition, Netanyahu risks stormy attacks from hawkish political rivals both in his own government and the opposition, who will accuse Netanyahu of capitulating to Erdogan and Hamas.
Turkey is also interested in diversifying its energy resources by importing gas from Israel’s large Leviathan Mediterranean gas field. Turkey’s interest in Israeli gas might grow in light of Turkey’s recent crisis with Russia, which provides Turkey with about half of its total gas needs. But correlating Turkish-Russian tensions with Turkish-Israeli rapprochement may not be sound. Dramatic statements from both capitals aside, Ankara cannot afford to cut off its relations with Moscow, a major global power with increasing involvement in Syria.
Troubled by low energy prices and economic slowdown at home, Russia will not hurry to turn its back on Turkey, which buys a significant share of Russia’s gas and oil. Thus, Turkey will attempt to rectify its relations with Russia regardless of its interest in Israeli gas.
Nor will Israel rush to guarantee its lucrative gas to Turkey. Since the crisis with Turkey deepened, Israel has invested heavily in fostering closer ties with Greece and Cyprus, two historical rivals of Turkey in the region. Israel considers both friendly countries as strong candidates through which gas could be exported to continental Europe. Israel will be careful not to endanger its relations with the two countries to sign a deal with a Turkish government with a record of anti-Israel demagogy and diplomacy.
Despite the current rift between the two countries, both Turkey and Israel regard the Middle East as an inherently volatile region. Their objectives in regard to the region remain similar: they both desire stability. Renewed Turkish-Israeli relations will yield benefits for both countries, but it complicated obstacles to reconciliation have yet to be removed.
The writer is a Ph.D candidate in Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.