This is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. In March 2013, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile, and here I am again nearly three years later explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile. That the two countries have had a number of false starts is instructive and provides the first lesson of the day, which is that despite yesterday’s announcement, expectations should be tempered until there is an actual signed agreement. That is not to say that this is a feint, but that there are still a lot of obstacles ahead, including President Erdoğan’s desire to use this as a domestic political win bumping against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire not to be used for Erdoğan’s political gain; a recent history of extremely difficult relations between the two governments that cannot be papered over at the drop of a hat; the Gaza blockade remaining as an extra large sticking point; and the big elephant – or more accurately, bear – in the room that is looming over this entire thing and that I’ll get to in a minute. In other words, this won’t be entirely easy so no champagne corks should be popping yet.
But assuming that this does indeed go through, it’s not terribly difficult to see why. What I wrote in March 2013 was that the two sides were being pushed together by energy needs and Syria, and that remains true today but even more acutely. Dan Arbell on Monday (exhibiting impeccable timing!) wrote about thawing relations between Turkey and Israel focusing on Turkey’s ongoing quest for energy security and Israel’s complementary ongoing quest to find an export destination for its natural gas, with the Syria situation being a factor as well. Turkey is in a serious bind now that its relationship with Russia has deteriorated in such a big way, and Israeli gas provides a way out. If Russia cancels the Turkish Stream project or even takes things one step further and halts natural gas shipments to Turkey entirely, Israeli gas won’t solve things in the short term but will provide a long term hedge against relying on Russia as a primary energy supplier. On the Israeli side, the simple truth is that no energy company is going to invest the resources to develop the Leviathan field without a viable export destination, and the two best large market options were always Egypt and Turkey. The first one is far less attractive now due to the recent Egyptian gas discoveries mitigating how much Israeli gas Egypt will want to buy over the long haul, leaving Turkey as the best destination remaining. There are still political hurdles to be overcome on both sides, and the technical hurdle of constructing a deepwater pipeline is nothing to sneeze at either, but the formal approval granted yesterday to Noble to develop Leviathan likely resulted directly from the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
On Syria, Turkey is always desperate for more intelligence and coordination given how much it has been affected by the civil war, and Israel can benefit as well since it does not want spillover across its northern border. The Russian intervention has made this more stark for both sides, since where Israeli opinion has been divided from the start on whether it is better for Assad to stay or go, there has emerged a slightly dominant view that it is better for Assad to be deposed given his role as the linchpin of the Iran-Hizbollah axis, and Russian intervention now makes that harder (if you’re interested in the subject, I participated on a Wilson Center panel yesterday with Tamara Wittes and Yoram Peri on the subject of the Syrian crisis and Israeli security, and you can watch it here). For Turkey, which has set Assad’s downfall as its top foreign policy priority for over four years, Russia’s involvement in Syria is a disaster and so to the extent that Israeli priorities are slowly lining up on the same side, any joint cooperation is a net positive.
All of this is why the timing of rapprochement makes sense, maybe even urgently so on the Turkish side. So why do I think that in some ways it is odd? The same way that the Russia variable is driving Turkey to find alternative solutions to some of its problems and reestablish close links with its Western allies – and certainly making up with Israel is a factor in pulling the U.S. closer – the mirror image is true for Israel. Whereas in the past Israel could reconcile with Turkey and it would be cost-free in the larger geopolitical context, now it’s not quite so simple. Israel and Russia have gotten along remarkably well despite Israeli and Russian military planes both flying along the same corridor in southern Syria, and up until now Russia has respected and tolerated Israeli freedom of action to attack weapons convoys on their way to Hizballah in Lebanon. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, however, and a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey has the potential to alter this equation. Russia is undoubtedly annoyed by yesterday’s news as it has been trying to isolate Turkey as best it can, and that in itself may lead to frostier relations with Israel. But even if you take Russian pettiness out of the equation, closer coordination between the Israeli and Turkish militaries has real potential to encroach on Russian priorities in Syria, which mainly consist of ensuring Assad’s rule over at least part of the country. Should Israel be drawn into Turkey’s fight and end up striking Syrian army positions that do not directly impact Hizballah advanced weaponry, Israeli leeway in Syria will be quickly narrowed by Russia.
Furthermore, Israel has now dramatically reduced Russian leverage over Turkey by mitigating Russia’s energy blackmail strategy. This is not only a matter of economics but geopolitics as well, since Russia uses Gazprom and its energy policy as a tool for foreign policy outcomes, and in the case of Turkey, that has now been significantly undermined. I’m no Russia expert, and I don’t know that there is a Russia expert alive who can predict what Putin will or won’t do, but my casual observation of Russian behavior leads me to believe that it is not outlandish to assume that Putin won’t retaliate against Israel in some manner or another for throwing Turkey a gas lifeline. With relations with Russia as terrible as they are for Turkey, it makes sense for Ankara to risk even more Russian wrath if it means solving the energy security problem. What mystifies me a bit is why Israel, which has so far gotten along with Russia remarkably well despite working somewhat at cross purposes against Russia in Syria, would risk a downturn in relations with Russia in order to make up with Turkey, a country that cannot threaten Israel in any real way and upon whose favor Israel does not depend in order to keep on going after Hizballah in Syria. Helping Turkey out of its morass in order to realize some economic benefits while risking the chance of limiting your range of action in Syria and provoking a much stronger power is penny wise and pound foolish. On top of this, there is also the lesser but not irrelevant factor that Israel has been frantically trying to establish better ties with the “moderate” Sunni bloc that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and there is no love lost for Turkey in that group of countries. When you look at the regional chess board, partnering in a closer way with Turkey brings with it some significant potential downside for Israel.
I’ll reiterate that nothing is done until it’s done, and so this post may prove to be as irrelevant as my last deep dive into this subject. From where I am sitting, this deal is a no-brainer for Turkey, but I don’t think the same can be definitively said for Israel. It will be fascinating to see where all of this leads and whether the benefits of reconciliation that both sides fantasize about end up fully materializing.