How burning Syria drove Israel and Turkey together

Rocket damage near front line between the Free Syrian Army and the pro-government forces in Aleppo (Photo: Reuters)

Rocket damage near front line between the Free Syrian Army and the pro-government forces in Aleppo (Photo: Reuters)

Four weeks ago, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan equated Zionism with fascism and called it a crime against humanity at a conference in Vienna, it seemed that relations between Israel and Turkey had reached their lowest ebb.

But without meaning to, Mr Erdogan had created an opening for a new American initiative to bring the two nations back together.

On a scheduled visit to Ankara earlier this month, State Secretary John Kerry criticised his host’s remark in stern terms, and his aides made it clear that the estrangement of America’s two main allies in the region had gone on long enough.

Behind the scenes, there were already signs of a quiet rapprochement. The Israeli government had agreed to supply electronic warfare systems for US-built Awacs aircraft being purchased by the Turkish Air Force, a project which had been held up for over two years. Talks had resumed over extending the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline — the source of most of Israel’s crucial Azerbaijani oil imports — from Turkey’s shores to Ashdod Port. And all the while, the Syrian Civil War has continued to burn, forcing the Turkish administration to recalibrate its previous policy of closer ties with the Syria-Iran axis and distance from Israel.

In his telephone call to Mr Erdogan, brokered by President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologised for the killing of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara ferry during the takeover of the Gaza flotilla in 2010, and agreed on a gradual resumption of full diplomatic ties. This was, above all, an affirmation of the fact that in the current regional balance, Israel and Turkey have no choice but to co-operate. Both countries need each other — there are too many strategic, economic and political assets at risk for them to be at constant loggerheads. Turkey’s aspirations to be a regional power still requires American backing and the support of the less radical and more stable governments in the region.

So why did it take so long? Both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Erdogan are cautious and suspicious, bordering on paranoid. Both wanted or needed the support of partners and allies — in Mr Netanyahu’s case he was constrained by the presence of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in his cabinet. Mr Lieberman, still powerful but for now forced out of the government, attacked the Israeli apology but he is focused on his court case and will not spark a political showdown over this.

Mr Erdogan has portrayed himself over the past four years as the patron of the Palestinians in Gaza. He is now promising to visit the Strip next month, but it will be merely a symbolic gesture because the deal with Israel does not include an easing of the partial blockade.

Friday’s agreement has been on the table for at least a year, but it took a presidential visit, elections in Israel and Mr Erdogan’s intemperate remarks to finally bring the two protagonists to the phone.

A return to the heady days of the Israeli-Turkish strategic alliance, if it happens, will be slow. There is still a great deal of suspicion between the two governments and Israel has intensified its military ties with Turkey’s rival, Greece. In addition, many of the security chiefs in Ankara are now viewed as being too close to Tehran to be involved in any meaningful co-operation. But the main obstacle has finally been removed and, for the first time since 2008, there is a prospect of the relationship warming up.

Last updated: 8:45pm, March 27 2013