Five years after the Gaza flotilla raid, Israel and Turkey have finally reached an understanding on a reconciliation agreement.
For those who have been following Turkish-Israeli relations closely, it was not a surprise. Even before the elections, there were signals of a possible thaw between the two countries.
Amidst the turmoil in the Middle East, both countries have shared interests in the region such as balancing the rise of Iran, cooperating against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and energy cooperation.
As for the timing of this agreement, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that regional developments and challenges have compelled Ankara to revise its foreign policy towards Israel.
Since the tide turned against Turkey’s favor during the Arab Spring, there has been a pressing need for a reset in foreign policy.
Indeed, a number of steps have been taken to overcome the regional isolation Turkey suffered resulting from its independent foreign policy line, which alienated its neighbors and allies alike. Turkey’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, secret meeting with Israeli counterparts in Rome, decision to open military bases to coalition forces and cancellation of a Chinese bid for a missile defense agreement were all parts of the same revisionary framework, which at the same time aimed at re-anchoring Turkey to the West.
In this context, the downing of the Russian plane without a doubt provided an impetus, precipitating Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel.
Apart from an urge to compensate for the economic sanctions imposed by Russia, Turkey’s approach toward Israel is also designed to alternate its energy resources and counteract the solidifying Russia-Cyprus-Egypt axis in the Mediterranean.
Furthermore, the normalization of relations will reduce Turkey’s isolation in the region and just as support from the lobbies will help smooth out differences with the United States better ties will also provide a more legitimate framework for the oil trade among Turkey, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and Israel.
The success of the preliminary agreement depends on whether the two sides will be able to reconcile their clashing interests over the embargo on Gaza.
Following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the prime minister, set three conditions for the normalization of ties, namely, an apology, compensation for the victims and a lifting of the embargo on Gaza.
In 2013, mediation by U.S. President Barack Obama resulted in an apology. Israel is claimed to have accepted paying a compensation of $20 million to the Turkish side for the victims of the Mavi Marmara Incident. In the end though, the embargo issue continues to stand in the way for further normalization.
At a time when violent terror incidents continue to spiral out of Jerusalem and Hamas issues calls for a third intifada, it is not realistic to expect Israel to abandon mechanisms controlling the flow of weapons into Gaza.
That being the case, the two sides will either isolate the issue of the embargo and continue negotiations or try to find a middle ground, perhaps a face-saving solution for the Turkish side that will provide relief for the Palestinians in Gaza without a total lifting of the embargo.
In fact, Israel has silently eased restrictions at the gates of Eretz and Karem Shalom for almost over a year. Turkish aids to Gaza have been being delivered through/via Israeli ports in Ashdod and Haifa.
Ultimately, the solution to the embargo issue involves not just Israel, but Egypt as well. Therefore, restoring relations with Egypt constitutes to be a crucial element – indeed it might follow as the next step after Israel – if Turkey is sincere about its intentions to ease the restrictions suffocating Gaza.
The rectification of ties between Turkey and Israel will surely benefit both countries and change the security calculations in the region.
Yet, one should also bear in mind that as long as the Israel-Palestinian issue remains unsolved and the Islamist-oriented ideological core prevails in Turkey, bilateral ties will remain vulnerable to new crises.