- Perspective on Turkish-Israeli Relations
The new Turkish and Israeli ambassadors arrived in each other’s capitals within the last days to jumpstart Turkey-Israeli relations. This is a very good thing for both sides, and it rectifies an unnatural situation.
Historical Inheritance of Turkish-Israeli Relations
It is not necessary to recall that in 1492 the Ottoman Empire received tens of thousands of Jews expelled by the Spanish Inquisition, and that they contributed significantly to the Empire’s development and prosperity. It is not necessary to recall that in 1949 the Republic of Turkey was the first state having a majority Muslim population that recognized the State of Israel, inaugurating Turkish-Israeli relations.
It is not necessary to recall these things, but it is instructive to do so, because it helps to remind that there are no fundamental issues that divide the friendship of the two peoples, and no fundamental issues that divide the interests of the two states in good Turkish-Israeli relations. It is human to forget this at times in the passion of the immediate moment, but after passions pass, it is still more human to recall and give thanks for the blessings of long-standing friendship and well-established cooperation.
Both ambassadors are excellent choices. Turkey’s new Ambassador Kemal Okem is an expert on the Middle East, foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and reportedly close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Israel’s new Ambassador Eitan Na’eh has specialized in Turkish affairs from the start of his quarter-century career. He served in Ankara for the first time in 1993 as second secretary, later also as first secretary.
Even more important than the historical ties between the two peoples and Turkish-Israeli relations, is the fact that both countries need each other as friends today. Other than Saudi Arabia, and of course Azerbaijan, Israel is Turkey’s only natural friend in the region. Indeed, Azerbaijan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all have excellent bilateral relations with each other.
Potential for Turkish-Israeli Relations Today
Israel is also a valued strategic partner today by both Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus, and by Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Saudi-Egyptian relations have improved in 2016, and there are indications also of modest improvement in Turkish-Egyptian relations. Of course Israeli-Egyptian relations are also positive today. Turkish-Russian relations have been restored, and Israel’s relations with Russia are also very good.
So all these countries–Turkey, Israel, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia–have positive bilateral relations with one another. Many of them have not only tactical cooperation based on short-term interests but also strategic cooperation based on long-term interests.
If one made a list of all two-way combinations of these six countries, it would be correct to speak in many of the cases, of a permanent mutual interest in strategic cooperation grounded in historical experience and made necessary by the present international situation. And the pair combining Turkish-Israeli relations would rank in the first place on such a list.
But the world has become so complicated today, that bilateralism is no longer as efficient as it once was, whether Turkish-Israeli relations or in general. And there is too much instability in the region for the two countries to have dysfunctional relations, but also it is necessary to stabilize them with the rudder of multilateral frameworks for cooperation. So it is best for cooperation in Turkish-Israeli relations to be begin today to be realized, for example, either multilaterally in coordination with NATO or in a triangle with the administration of a new President Donald Trump, whom both Turkey and Israel can trust to deal in a realistic, fair, and workmanlike manner.
Discussions on cooperation among Cypriot and Israeli industrial and government circles have been under way for some time. The inter-communal talks on Cyprus are reaching a critical stage. Reunification of Cyprus could permit development not only in the offshore Aphrodite field to the south of Cyprus, but other offshore gas fields, benefiting the whole population of the island. Resolution of the Cyprus problem would open the way for trilateral Turkey-Israel-Cyprus cooperation that would improve the economic situation of the Turkish Cypriot population.
Energy in Turkish-Israeli Relations
The new possibility also exists for cooperative Turkish-Israeli relations in the energy sphere. Israel’s offshore Leviathan and Tamar natural gas fields are estimated to hold 900 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas. A 500-kilometer pipeline to Ceyhan is the most feasible route to market, whereas a route to Greece, also carrying gas from Cyprus’s offshore Aphrodite field, would require a 1,100 km deep-water pipeline.
More offshore gas discoveries have been made in the waters in the Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) over the last two years, but these have not been developed. In the next month, still further areas will be opened up for exploration, that could contain as much as 2,200 bcm. (The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the whole East Mediterranean offshore could contain 3,500 bcm altogether.)
There are therefore significant opportunities for the involvement of Turkish companies, and bilateral discussions with Israel should begin in the near future. Energy cooperation in Turkish-Israeli relations is a good basis from which to begin to build up mutual confidence again. Israeli-sourced natural gas would be very cost-effective for Turkey (significantly even more so than Russian gas) and could be re-exported to Europe, for example, via the TANAP pipeline.
Indeed, Turkish dependence on Russian gas imports has risen from 40 percent at the end of the last decade to 55 per cent today. One understands the Turkish Stream pipeline as a politically strategic project, but its realization faces significant technical and also financial impediments today, that were not present even three years ago.
If Israeli gas is conducted through the Turkish pipeline system to western Turkey, it will be still less expensive than Russian gas from the first part of Turkish Stream, if Russia actually ends shipments through the western (also called trans-Balkan) route of Ukraine-Romania-Bulgaria. And the diversification of sources of energy supply is certainly in Ankara’s interest.
Energy may well be the sector of strategic cooperation most open to cooperation in Turkish-Israeli relations at the present time. It would be a good place start, and it has long-term potential. One has the right to wish that it should lead to deeper trust on both sides, for expansion of cooperation into other spheres.
[Turkish translation published in Derin Ekonomi.]