Turkey–Israel normalization – why ever not?

          “Normalization” is a dirty word among Palestinian leaders, of both Fatah and Hamas persuasions. It implies acceptance of Israel’s right to exist and, by some perverse logic, a downgrading of Palestinian rights.
          It must have come as something of a shock, therefore, to read the remarks of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 13 about Turkey’s future relations with Israel: "I have already said that once the compensation and the embargo problems were resolved, the normalization process may start. This normalization process would be good for us, Israel, Palestine and the entire region.”
          To be honest, there really is no fundamental reason for relations between Turkey and Israel to be anything but cordial. Indeed for fifty years following the founding of the state of Israel, cordiality was the keynote. In March 1949 Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the new state. Subsequently, despite occasional differences of opinion following the Six-Day War and its consequences, cooperation between the two countries on a variety of fronts was not only close, but deep. By the end of the 1990s a succession of Turkey’s prime ministers had visited Israel, and then-Israeli president, Ezer Weizman had visited Turkey on three occasions to sign agreements aimed at fostering cooperation in the fields of art, culture, education, science, and sports. This was followed by a series of security agreements designed to ensure the closest cooperation between the two countries on intelligence and military matters. Meanwhile 200,000 Israelis flocked to Turkish beaches and casinos each year, and under a Turkish-Israeli free trade agreement trade between the two countries boomed.
          This happy state of affairs received its set-back with Erdogan’s rise to prominence in Turkey’s political arena. Erdogan came from an Islamist background and, whatever lip-service he may have paid to the Turkey’s secularist tradition introduced by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, he was inherently opposed to it. Early in his career he joined the Islamist Welfare Party (IWP), and rose to become a member of parliament. Barred from taking his seat on a technicality, in 1994 he was elected mayor of Istanbul, where he antagonised secularists by banning alcohol in the city's cafés.
          Erdogan then helped form the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) which proved wildly popular and won the parliamentary election in 2002. He took office as prime minister in May, 2003.
           Despite a state visit to Israel in 2005, Erdogan’s accession soon marked a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. Rooted in hard-line Islamism, Erdogan’s priority was soon revealed as courting favor with the Muslim world. Support for the extremist terror organizations Hamas and Hezbollah began to dominate Turkey’s approach to foreign affairs. Vehement in his condemnation of Israel’s incursion into Gaza in 2008-9 to counter Hamas’s rocket attacks, he had a memorable public spat with Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres at the Davos conference in 2009, and stormed out of the meeting. Then came the notorious Mavi Marmara affair, when an AKP-inspired plan to provoke an incident with Israel on the high seas succeeded only too well, leading to the death of nine Turkish citizens.
          In spite of all this, a community of interests between Turkey and Israel persisted and, in the way of foreign relations, imposed its own imperatives. Between 2009 and 2014 two-way trade between Turkey and Israel positively mushroomed. From some $2.6 billion in 2009, by 2014 it had exceeded $5.6 billion – which perhaps explains why negotiating teams charged with restoring ties between Turkey and Israel had begun meeting as early as April 2013. Quite separately, discussions had also begun on the extent of the financial compensation to be paid by Israel to the families of the Turkish citizens killed on board the Mavi Marmara.
            Russia’s incursion into Syria brought a sudden shake-up of the political pattern. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, side by side with Shi’ite Iran, entered the conflict in support of his long-time ally, President Bashar Assad; Erdogan, profoundly Sunni, was directing some of his fire at Assad’s troops – although he was equally interested in pounding Kurdish forces.
          Then on November 24 came Turkey’s downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet along the Syrian border. The result was a crisis in Turco-Russian relations. Turkey imports most of its natural gas from Russia, and for some time the two sides had been discussing a possible natural gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea to channel gas from Russia to Turkey and beyond. Two days after the Russian aircraft was shot down, Russia cancelled the project. Suddenly Turkey’s future energy supplies seemed in jeopardy, and Turkish politicians, energy companies, and others began calling for talks with Israel about future natural gas imports.
          On November 30 Erdogan remarked to reporters in Paris that he believed he was “able to fix ties” with Israel . On December 13 he said: "This normalization process would be good for us, Israel, Palestine and the entire region,,, We need to consider the interests of the people of the region and introduce peace." By December 15 it had become clear that talks between Turkey and Israel to heal the diplomatic rift were gaining momentum. Reports indicated that a key element in establishing “normalized relations” would be Turkey’s ability to import natural gas from the vast reserves that have been discovered in Israel’s sovereign waters much of which is still waiting to be exploited.
          Erdogan is insisting on his three preconditions for re-establishing normal relations with Israel – an apology for the deaths of the Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara; agreed compensation for the victims’ families, and an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The apology has already been given by Netanyahu; compensation terms appear to have been agreed; and the so-called blockade of Gaza has been attenuated to such a degree that only the most obviously military materiel is now prohibited.
          But Turkey is not getting things all its own way. As part of the deal Turkey has agreed to expel Saleh al-Aruri, a senior member of Hamas's military wing. Aruri has been directing terrorist operatives in the West Bank from his base in Istanbul. Moreover, shortly after the Turkey deal was concluded, Israel announced a three-way summit to take place in January between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades. Joint exploitation of the huge Mediterranean gas reserves will doubtless feature largely on the agenda. Israel is in effect telling Cyprus and Greece that any normalization of ties with Turkey will not come at their expense. It is also sending a message to Turkey that Israel has other options in the region.
          Perhaps, also, the sight of Israel and an erstwhile enemy normalizing their relations will send a message to the implacable opponents of normalization in the Palestinian camp. Deals to the advantage of both parties can be hammered out, even where Israel is involved. It can be done.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014”. He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.