July 05, 2016 - Turkey and Israel

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses Israel and Turkey's formula for reconciliation and normalizing of their relations and what this entails; if it is a somewhat one-sided deal: Israel seems to have achieved much more than Turkey; what are the Turkish weaknesses that Netanyahu leveraged; the Israel-Egypt-Turkey triangle; if there is a broad Israeli regional strategy at work here signaled by last week's deal with Turkey and this week's expansion of Israel’s ties with the countries of East Africa; and if Ankara’s quest to become the effective regional patron of Hamas in Gaza isn't potentially a problem for Israel.

Q. Last week, after six years of crisis-ridden relations, Israel and Turkey agreed on a formula for reconciling and normalizing their relations. What did this entail?

A. Israel agreed to pay $20 million in indirect compensation for the death of nine Turks in the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. (The Mavi Marmara, a ship sponsored by a Turkish Islamist organization, was trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza.) In return, Turkey agreed to block all legal action against Israeli officers involved in the incident and to restore full and normal diplomatic relations with Israel.

Turkey also dropped its demand that Israel end its blockade of Gaza--which after all has been recognized as legal by a UN commission that Turkey participated in. Turkey agreed that humanitarian and economic aid it wishes to provide Gazans will be routed for security reasons via Israel’s Ashdod port; an initial shipment has already taken place. Israel welcomed Turkish plans to build a hospital and desalination and electricity-production facilities for the Strip.

Turkey also undertook to block Hamas militant activity from Turkey itself and to assist in efforts to repatriate to Israel two IDF soldiers missing in action and presumed dead since the last round of fighting two years ago, and two psychologically unbalanced Israeli civilians who entered Gaza of their own volition.

Q. This comes across as a one-sided deal: Israel seems to have achieved much more than Turkey.

A. Indeed, despite criticism in Israel of PM Netanyahu’s inability to get back the missing live and dead Israelis as part of the deal, he appears to have leveraged Turkish President Erdogan’s current weaknesses very effectively to produce a beneficial agreement. Yet the benefits should not be exaggerated: the close bilateral Israeli-Turkish security cooperation of the 1990s is not likely to be restored, and economic ties never really suffered. Note that in recent years more than 10,000 Turkish trucks annually have used Israel as a conduit--bypassing war-torn Syria and Iraq by arriving in Haifa by ferry--for bringing Turkish goods to Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula.

Q. What are those Turkish weaknesses that Netanyahu leveraged?

A. Turkey’s acute strategic dilemmas with Syria, Russia, the Kurds and ISIS, with repeated acts of mass terrorism executed by the latter two--not to mention the long-festering conflict with Cyprus--have obliged Erdogan to abandon the “zero problems with neighbors” strategy he put in place around a decade ago. That strategy was widely and critically perceived by the region as “neo-Ottoman”, meaning negatively reminiscent of Turkish imperial domination of past centuries. A new and more modest strategy was enunciated last week by newly-appointed Prime Minister Binali Yildirim: expand Turkey’s circle of friends and narrow its circle of enemies.

Last week Erdogan also publicly apologized to Russia’s President Putin for the downing of a Russian combat aircraft over the Turkish-Syrian border some months ago. Moscow acted immediately to relieve heavy economic pressures on Turkey. Here, incidentally, Netanyahu may have played the role of mediator: last month, in one of his periodic meetings with Putin, Netanyahu extracted the Russian leader’s “blessing” for the Israel-Turkish deal. This alleviated one of Netanyahu’s two regional problems regarding the Israel-Turkey deal. The agreement could have proven somewhat counter-productive had it alienated either Putin or Egypt’s President Sisi, both of whom had scores to settle with the Islamist Erdogan.

Still, Russia continues to support the Syrian Kurds, whose efforts to carve out an autonomous region in northern Syria Erdogan fiercely opposes lest it incite Turkey’s Kurds as they too seek more autonomous rights. Hence the Russia-Turkey-Kurdistan triangle remains a major complication for Erdogan.

Q. And the Israel-Egypt-Turkey triangle?

A. Egypt has not openly criticized the Israel-Turkey deal even though the Sisi regime in Cairo takes strong exception to Erdogan’s support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and for Hamas--the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Israel’s refusal to relax its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and its close military and intelligence cooperation with Egypt in countering ISIS in Sinai are undoubtedly balancing factors here.

Still, just as Turkey ends up having to juggle its relations with Russia and the Syrian Kurds, Israel now has to factor Turkey into the broad fabric of strategic and economic relations it is trying to weave in the Eastern Mediterranean basis. Here gas is the key. Turkey is the obvious natural customer for Israel’s gas deposits: a pipeline to Turkey from the Leviathan field located halfway between Israel and Cyprus would have to traverse only 530 km of relatively shallow seabed. Turkey needs the gas and can transport it readily to energy-hungry Europe. Egypt, on the other hand, has its own substantial Mediterranean gas deposits. So does Cyprus. Greece, on the other hand, is both a doubtful gas customer and a doubtful conduit to Europe due to the physical obstacle to a pipeline from Leviathan presented by the very deep seabed to its east.

But energy-related complications don’t end here. Egypt, Greece and Cyprus have all radically enhanced their strategic cooperation with Israel in recent years precisely because they view Erdogan’s Turkey as an Islamist threat. Nor can a pipeline to transport Israeli gas to Turkey be laid on the seabed unless and until Ankara and Nicosia resolve their long-festering conflict over northern Cyprus. This leaves Netanyahu, following the breakthrough with Erdogan, with a delicate balancing act.

Q. Last week witnessed a deal with Turkey, and this week Netanyahu is expanding Israel’s ties with the countries of East Africa. Is there a broad Israeli regional strategy at work here?

A. That appears to be the case. We’ll look in depth at Netanyahu’s Africa trip next week. Meanwhile, we clearly are witnessing a concerted Israeli attempt to expand strategic ties in a number of directions: among the core Arab countries Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; in the Mediterranean basis, now including Turkey; toward the Gulf emirates; with Russia; and now with African states, particularly those abutting the Red Sea and North Africa. One constant theme of this dynamic is Israel’s acknowledged capacity to assist in the struggle against militant Islamist terrorism (note that recent acts of Palestinian “lone wolf” terrorism emanating from the Hebron region in the southern West Bank appear to have been inspired by ISIS rather than, say, Hamas). Another, less acknowledged theme is that these ties are designed in part to dwarf the Palestinian issue. The sole exception to this pattern is Turkey, where from Ankara’s standpoint the rapprochement is essentially based on its quest to become the effective regional patron of Hamas in Gaza.

Q. Isn’t that potentially a problem for Israel?

A. That would appear to depend on two factors. One is Erdogan’s behavior. If he reverts to form and begins threatening and berating Israel over its approach toward Hamas despite (or perhaps because of) the role awarded him by the new agreement, then the entire Israel-Turkey rapprochement could blow up in Israel’s face.

The second factor is a possible new Israel-Gaza mini-war that could conceivably oblige Erdogan to again downgrade Turkey’s relations with Israel. Whether such a war has now been rendered more or less likely by Turkey’s newly formalized role is not entirely clear. To the extent that Turkish economic aid to Gaza has the effect of reducing Hamas belligerency, the likelihood of provocative Hamas missile and terror attacks on Israel from Gaza could be expected to decline. But this equation relies on the problematic “economic peace” concept that has failed repeatedly. Indeed, there are militant Hamas elements in Gaza that reportedly disdain the Turkish role and seek to take over the political leadership of Hamas. And recently-appointed Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman appears to believe in the inevitability of another round with Hamas.

Note, in this context, that the Israel-Turkey deal, by strengthening Hamas (which unlike Turkey and Israel paid no price at all for their rapprochement), hardens Gaza’s separation from the PLO-ruled West Bank, weakens the PLO and seemingly enhances the prospects for a “three-state solution”. But it does nothing to alleviate Israel’s total lack of a viable strategy for Gaza.

Q. The bottom line?

A. Netanyahu’s deal with Turkey reflects a largely successful effort to expand Israel’s regional and international reach and to minimize the import of the Palestinian issue at the regional level. Will any of this serve to balance Israel’s increasingly problematic status in the United States and Europe, which is driven by the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock? Clearly, Netanyahu intends that to be the case. Will Ankara’s patronage of Hamas in any way slow down Israel’s ongoing slide down a slippery slope toward an ugly, violent and tribal one-state reality with the Palestinians? Not at all. On the contrary, to the extent it distracts Israeli, regional and international attention from the Palestinian issue, it merely facilitates that slide. Note with what ease the Netanyahu government proceeded with additional construction plans for Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem this past week.

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