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.
Q: Last week’s Herzog-Erdogan meeting in Ankara seemed to produce nothing of substance; only a lot of impressive pomp. Why was it important?
A: From Israel’s standpoint, improved relations with Turkey could favorably affect both the Palestinian issue and energy exports. While that is a tall order, and while last week’s summit was quickly overshadowed by the Ukraine conflict, the summit’s importance should not be ignored.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is courting Israel and trying to reestablish close relations after a prolonged period during which he has tilted toward Islamists--Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood--and condemned Israel in the Palestinian context as a ‘Nazi’ and ‘terrorist’ state. Israel, which has close strategic relations with Greece and Cyprus, two countries that have also been objects of Turkish hostility, is addressing Erdogan’s outreach cautiously.
Still, Ankara’s new and friendly approach cannot easily be ignored. Turkey is a major regional strategic power. Turkey and Israel have maintained burgeoning economic ties despite the recent chill in their strategic relations. Throughout the past decade of ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, Turkish exports to the wealthy Persian Gulf states were channeled overland via Israel (and Jordan). Today, Turkey offers what is probably the only viable channel for exporting eastern Mediterranean natural gas to Europe, where it is needed more than ever in view of energy sanctions on Russia.
Over the past decade, Erdogan’s disastrous economic policies have generated a crisis in Turkey, which is still seen as the region’s economic powerhouse. Consumer inflation exceeds 50 percent and the lira has depreciated radically. Erdogan’s aggressive pro-Islamist policies have cooled relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whose investments Turkey desperately needs. His flirt with Russia--buying advanced Russian radars--has alienated his NATO partners, especially the Biden administration. Erdogan faces reelection next year against a tough and united parliamentary opposition and he understands he has quickly to improve the lot of the Turkish public
Turkey and Israel still have shared interests. Along with Iran, they are the preeminent military powers in and adjacent to the Arab Middle East. Both Ankara and Jerusalem are anxious over the endless strife in Syria and the Iranian and especially Russian role there. Both have good relations with Russia and Ukraine and are therefore valued for their mediation role in that conflict. And Erdogan is energetically repairing relations with the Saudis, Emiratis, Armenians, Egyptians and everyone else he has alienated in recent years.
When Erdogan looks at Israel, he sees a prosperous country and a net energy exporter that under the Abraham Accords has normalized relations with at least three Arab countries in addition to Egypt and Jordan. He also sees a stable Israel-Greece-Cyprus strategic relationship on Turkey’s Mediterranean doorstep. All this informs and incentivizes his attempt to repair ties with Jerusalem.
Q: All well and good. But what was agreed last week in Ankara?
A: Beyond the colorful parades and 21-gun salute for Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, the two presidents’ official statements were striking for the contrast between them. Erdogan, ever stern-faced, concentrated on the energy opportunities--exploration, export--that Turkey could offer Israel. The more cheerful Herzog said essentially nothing of substance. No breakthrough of any sort in relations was announced. The return of the two countries’ ambassadors, withdrawn over the Palestinian issue and Erdogan’s truly nasty and anti-Semitic rhetoric, was not announced.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will visit Israel next month to continue discussions. The Israeli demand that Turkey cease hosting Palestinian Islamist Hamas--particularly arch-terrorist Salah Arouri and the network he deploys from Turkish soil-- was not mentioned publicly by Herzog in Ankara.
Q: Israeli-Turkish relations have seen far better days. The two countries witnessed eras of genuine strategic alliance against Arabs and Soviets. Highlights?
A: Beginning in 1958 and into the late 1970s, Turkey, Iran and Israel maintained a strategic intelligence and military alliance known among them as ‘Trident’. The common enemies were the Arabs, then increasingly under radical nationalist regimes, and the Cold War-era Soviets. Turkey in particular was dominated by its military, which was pro-Israel. Because Turkey and Israel both border on Syria (from the north and the south, respectively), relations even reached a point where they discussed a joint military attack on that country. All the while, Turkey’s official policy positions, in United Nations votes for example, were pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian.
Relations cooled in the 1980s, then briefly improved, again thanks to Turkey’s military, in the late 1990s when joint military operations against a radical Syria were again contemplated and Israel helped Turkey capture radical Kurdish rebel leader Abdallah Ocalan.
With the advent of the Erdogan era around 20 years ago, the Turkish defense establishment’s influence on regional strategic decision-making was radically reduced as Erdogan first returned the military to barracks, then adopted an autocratic agenda. Briefly in 2008 he mediated peace talks between Israel and Syria, then broke off the effort in a fury when the Olmert government became involved in the first (but not the last) of Israel’s clashes with Hamas in Gaza. Over the past decade, Erdogan’s regional agenda became a mix of Islamist, neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkic currents that have not included Israel and have produced few substantive fruits.
Q: Back in Trident days, Greece was hostile toward Israel, Cyprus was just gaining independence, and Egypt and Israel were in a state of war. Today, natural gas unites all four and Turkey is odd man out in the eastern Mediterranean. How can Israel finesse Erdogan’s gas initiatives without losing these new and critical energy partners?
A: Herzog, in close coordination with the Bennett-Lapid government, visited both Greece and Cyprus in order to reassure them prior to his Ankara visit. And not just about energy cooperation. Israel and the two Hellenic Mediterranean states have developed close strategic relations that in recent years have included joint military exercises and even Israeli assistance to Cyprus in rebuffing Turkish incursions into Cypriot air and naval space.
Currently Israel, Cyprus and Greece are linking their electricity and natural gas networks. A shared gas export scheme for Europe involves a seabed gas pipeline project between Greece and Italy that is generally deemed both unpractical and prohibitively expensive because of the sea depth and the distance involved. Meanwhile, Israeli natural gas is being diverted to Egypt, which reexports it overland to Jordan and even Syria and Lebanon but also liquifies it for export by ship anywhere--another expensive venture. Turkey has alienated Egypt by supporting the Sisi regime’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood opposition, meddling in war-torn Libya and unilaterally delineating an exclusive economic zone that clashes with those of both Egypt and Cyprus.
Still, gas is where Turkey potentially re-enters the picture. In a more tranquil eastern Mediterranean where Turkey has improved relations with Israel, Egypt and Cyprus, the most economical way for all concerned to market natural gas is to the large Turkish energy market and via Turkey to Europe. Laying a pipeline north from Israeli and Cypriot maritime gas fields along the eastern Mediterranean coast to Turkey is a relatively simple venture, assuming Turkish relations with Syria and Syrian-based Russian forces are orderly. The economic payoff is potentially so big that Erdogan is apparently prepared to grit his teeth and repair relations with Israel, and Jerusalem is prepared to proceed cautiously with discussions of improved ties with Ankara.
Q: That takes us back to Erdogan’s policies regarding Israel/Palestine. . .
A: If anything is to come of this Turkish initiative, Israel will want Turkey to cease actively supporting Hamas and to adopt a more helpful attitude regarding the Gaza Strip, similar to Egypt’s position. It will also need to call Ankara to order regarding its harmful Islamist activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Only then is it likely that discussions of a constructive Turkish regional energy role in the eastern Mediterranean could take place, without prejudicing Israel’s strategic relationship with Cyprus and Greece.
One major drawback to any new Israel-Turkey energy deal is Erdogan’s temperament. Will the Turkish leader, who is incapable of resolving Turkey’s own historic domestic conflict with its Kurdish citizenry and has for several years been terrorizing any suspect political opposition, once again tear into Israel with bone-chilling curses if and when another conflict with Hamas in Gaza bursts upon us? Or, with Ramadan approaching, if and when unrest returns to the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif compound?
This explains the caution displayed in Ankara by President Herzog.