In March, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called and Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan answered the phone. It was only because President Obama, about to fly out of Israel, applied pressure to both.
For almost three years, Israel declined to approve the formula worked out between Israeli and Turkish negotiators aimed at breaking the ice between the two governments. Tensions had run high since May 2010, when tens of pro-Palestinian activists tried to break through a blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza. Nine people, including eight Turkish nationals, were killed when Israeli troops raided their ship, the Mavi Marmara.
But the apology made by Netanyahu will not put an end to tensions between the two governments or avert future conflicts. Two additional Turkish conditions for restoring full diplomatic relations have to be met: compensation for the families of the Turkish citizens killed in May 2010 and an end to the blockade of Gaza. Turkey has already requested a delay for the talks on the compensation. Discussions on the blockade of Gaza—if they are ever held—may bring Turkey and Israel into a bitter disagreement over the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead.
But even if all the Turkish preconditions are met, the problems will not end and tension will increase on several different levels.
Some of the Turkish leader’s statements concerning Israel are considered by many to be offensive and unacceptable. His remarks in late February of this year, in which he lumped Zionism in with anti-Semitism, fascism and Islamophobia as crimes against humanity, elicited harsh criticism from the White House and the European Union. (The best response, though unintended as such, was the visit President Obama made to the Jerusalem grave of the father of Zionism—Theodor Herzl.)
In the early days of the rule of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, Erdogan was more circumspect in his criticism of Israel. In other words, so long as cooperation with Israel served his personal and national goals for Turkey, he and foreign minister Davutoglu were willing to censor themselves. Israel responded similarly by turning a blind eye to some troubling events: Iran’s use of Turkish airspace to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon; the then flourishing relations between Tehran and Ankara; and the political and financial support rendered by Turkey to Hamas in the wake of their takeover of Gaza in June 2007.
Between 2006-2009, Israel entrusted Turkey with negotiations with Syria. Turkey hosted the Israeli and Syrian negotiations and acted as a go-between in these proximity talks. This role gave the Turkish political leadership precisely the political gratification they were looking for and proof that Turkey is a key regional player. Turkey was quick to paper over the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor attributed to Israel by planes that might have violated Turkish airspace (detached fuel tanks were found on Turkish soil).
All of this came to an end, however, in the last days of 2008 and early part of 2009. In the final week of December 2008, Prime Minister Erdogan hosted his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, who had already announced his resignation. Hours after returning, Israel launched the military operation "Cast Lead," aimed at stopping the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza targeting Israeli towns and villages. Olmert could not have told his Turkish host of the impending Israeli operation, but Erdogan's fury can be similarly understood—the impression that he was informed about the Israeli operation and made no attempt to stop it could have been created. Erdogan's anger was evident when, for example, he stormed out from a session with Israel's president, Shimon Peres, in the Davos Economic Forum several weeks later. Following elections in early 2009, the new Israeli government under Netanyahu decided to suspend talks with Syria, a legitimate act but one that eliminated a Turkish political asset. This all preceded the dramatic events that occurred at sea in May 2010.
The rapidly changing geostrategic map of the Middle East contains more seeds of conflict between Turkey and Israel than before. In the 1950s and 60s, Israel built informal pacts with non-Arab peripheral players—Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia—as a partial countermeasure to it being surrounded by hostile Arab states. Israel has had peace treaties with two states–Egypt and Jordan—since 1979 and 1994, which has improved its strategic balance. Syria and Iraq are now in a process of disintegration and potential alliances could be developed among their minorities, which have been long oppressed. As central governments weaken and prove unable to exert even a semblance of control, such ethnic and religious groups are pushing for political and cultural autonomy.
The most significant of these, both demographically and territorially, are the Kurds. Relations between Israel and the Kurds of Iraq were established long ago and at the time encountered no opposition from Turkey. But circumstances have changed and a bold, proactive campaign by Israel to leverage the new regional circumstances and forge alliances with such regional forces, especially the Kurds, may clash with Turkey's strategy of containing Kurdish ambitions. This may in turn prevent the "Kurdish Spring" from spilling into Turkey's own Kurdish community.
The terrorist safe haven created in Syria may become another arena of confrontation between Israel and Turkey. Although the latter, to be sure, does not support terrorism, its border with Syria is porous, allowing almost free movement of would-be terrorists into Syria. If future instability in Syria forces Israel to take action—particularly if nonconventional weapons developed by the Syrian regime fall into the hands of terrorists groups—Turkey may react negatively.
Furthermore, Turkey's support for Hamas is a clear cause for past, present and future friction. Erdogan has already announced his plan to visit Gaza: he clearly seeks to present himself as the one who can "deliver" Hamas and be a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington has sent public signals that indicate a lack of interest in Erdogan's open channels with Hamas but in time, and under possible pressure from its partners in the Quartet, the United States may soften its position on Hamas, which would cause tension between not only between Erdogan and Netanyahu, but also between the United States and Israel.
The Energy Card
Huge natural-gas reservoirs have already been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. Developing natural resources at sea requires the delineation of the exclusive economic zones between the various states in the region. Cyprus has reached separate agreements with Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. Turkey has protested, arguing that the government of the Republic of Cyprus cannot negotiate for the Turkish-controlled part of the island.
The situation could be further complicated if any of the producers decided to export natural gas to Europe. In that case, two technical options are open to exporters: either liquefy the gas and ship it in tankers to Europe or lay pipelines from the Mediterranean gas fields to Turkey in order to connect with the already-existing web of lines on Turkish soil. But given the unpredictability of Turkish-Israeli relations, it may not be wise for Israeli companies, or even others wishing to sell Israeli natural gas, to use Turkey as transit to Europe—and become totally dependent on its government. Some will point to the bilateral trade that expanded in recent years despite frozen relations, but risks involved in ordinary trade in goods cannot be compared to those involved in the energy trade, in which massive investments are required and risks are tremendous. Continued tension between Israel and Turkey may tilt an already complicated equation away from Turkey, resulting in both a political and financial loss.
Keeping the Lines Open
This is by no means an exhaustive list of potential areas of conflict. Until 2009, Israeli pilots trained over the remote eastern and hilly terrain of Turkey. Since the deterioration in bilateral relations, however, Israel has moved such pilot training primarily to Greece. Stronger relations between Israel, Greece and Cyprus will not be viewed positively in Ankara. And although in the last couple of years Turkey has reversed its previously good relations with Iran, it could again change course if Ankara felt it would suit its interests.
Until three to four years ago, Turkey and Israel were able to look past these contradictions. Today, reconciliation seems remote and the new regional realities make it even more difficult to reach. The United States should continue to keep an eye on evolving Turkish-Israeli relations. Only several weeks after the telephone conversation between Erdogan and Netanyahu, it is clear that more than one call will be required.
Oded Eran is the former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and the European Union and currently a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies.
(Images—Left: World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0. Right: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0.)