The announcement of Turkish-Israeli rapprochement was touted first as an economic achievement for Israel. It should be noted, however, that Turkey-Israel civilian trade, as distinct from military trade, was already robust, rising from $1.5 billion in the first half of 2010 to $5.6 billion in 2015. Israel has an interest in Turkey as a customer for Israeli natural gas fields, but a number of countries — including Russia — also seek partnerships in natural gas.
The deal has also been linked to the resolution of three Turkish conditions arising from the “Gaza Flotilla” of 2010. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who was prime minister at the time of the Gaza flotilla) had demanded an Israeli apology for the deaths of Turkish citizens on one of the flotilla ships, financial compensation, and the lifting of the Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza. The first two were agreed to by Israel years ago. The resolution — or non-resolution — of the third is a window into what is really going on, which is both more, and less, than the news reports.
Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu naturally blame Israel for delaying the restoration of political and presumably military ties, but, in fact, Israeli policy (assisted by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden) produced perhaps the best possible outcome.
Israel has had some success working with Sunni governments in the region — including Saudi Arabia — on the basis of shared opposition to ISIS and to Iranian plans for regional hegemony. Both are better done with Turkey than without. And Israel’s political and military interlocutors, Russia and Egypt, needed some assurance that would ameliorate their displeasure with Turkish-Israeli reconciliation.
For Russia, there was a public apology from Erdogan for shooting down a Russian plane over Turkey, which resulted in the death of the pilot — an act that Russian President Vladimir Putin called “a stab in the back.” In an obsequious letter, Erdogan wrote,
“The Turkish side… made a great effort to recover the body of the Russian pilot… The organization of the pre-burial procedures was conducted in accordance with all religious and military procedures… Ankara has treated the family of the dead Russian pilot as if it were a Turkish family… and is ready for any initiatives to relieve the pain and severity of the damage done.”
Erdogan called Russia a “friend and strategic partner.”
For Egypt, there is assurance that the naval blockade of Gaza, important to Egypt’s fight against ISIS and Hamas (the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), would not be lifted. The 2010 flotilla was organized by the Hamas-related IHH “charitable group” and supported by the Erdogan government. A CIA report had linked the organization with “Iran and Algerian groups,” and the IHH office in Bosnia “has been linked to Iranian operatives.” As the flotilla neared the waters off Gaza, Israel broadcast orders for the ships to land in the Israeli port of Ashdod where the “humanitarian aid” for Gaza would be offloaded. Six of the seven ships did so; the Mavi Marmara did not and was boarded by Israeli commandos. In the ensuing melee, nine Turks were killed and ten Israeli commandos wounded.
The UN Secretary General’s Report on the Gaza Flotilla, while criticizing the IDF for “excessive” force, nevertheless found that IDF troops faced an “organized and violent” assault from a group on the ship. It concluded that Israel was within its rights to use force and found the blockade of Gaza to be legal. Israel, therefore and in consideration of its relations with Egypt, steadfastly declined to lift the blockade.
Israel’s determination resulted in Turkey agreeing to Israel’s original condition to the flotilla ships: aid bound for Gaza will offload in Ashdod. As Al Jazeera reported:
“One of the interesting things that we’ve come to find out recently is that the material Turkey will be sending to Gaza will first land in the Israeli port of Ashdod. Obviously the third condition has not been met because if this deal stipulates that Turkey must send in materials to Ashdod, it means that the siege is still in place. Anything that is reaching Gaza must still get there via the Israeli port, meaning it requires Israel’s approval.”
That should mollify Egypt.
Israel had also wanted to oust Hamas from Turkey — something that may not have been accomplished — but Israel and Turkey will have diplomatic avenues for Israel to try to influence Turkey’s support of Hamas. At the same time, Turkey, by agreeing to a number of humanitarian projects in Gaza — through Ashdod — will increase its leverage over Hamas in ways that might benefit Israel.
And the regional elephant in the room — Israel’s support for Kurdish separatism, in Iraq and Syria if not directly in Turkey — was not addressed in the new arrangement.
What cannot be judged at this moment is the degree of commitment to the elements of the deal on the Turkish side. Israel has made its apology and agreed to the sum it will pay in damages to Turkish citizens. But Turkey has been moving toward a more stridently Islamist political and ideological posture since Erdogan’s first election in 2003, offering encouragement to Islamists and jihadists of various stripes.
It may be that the combination of economic advancement and an easing of regional isolation will modify Turkey’s behavior — and Erdogan’s mouth. That remains to be seen. But from Israel’s point of view, its basic requirements have been met, no unacceptable conditions have been imposed, and the deal so far can be considered a diplomatic success.