by Prof. Eyal Zisser
Israel and Turkey have a series of shared interests, chief among them curbing Iranian expansion in the region.
The recent reports that Israel and Turkey are closer than ever to normalizing diplomatic relations do not yet signify the renewal of the strategic alliance shared by Jerusalem and Ankara a decade ago.
The path toward finalizing the understandings that will resolve their grievances -- on the question of compensation for the families of those who died on the Gaza-bound vessel Mavi Marmara, but also on the question of Turkish support for Hamas -- is still a long one, rife with pitfalls, and is largely dependent on the good will and political willingness of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Indeed, the professionals have already ironed out all the technical aspects, so the only thing delaying their implementation has been the political decision to move forward.
And yet, where there's smoke, there's fire. The fact that the reports emerged from the Turkish side indicate that someone's thinking has actually changed. After all, it was Erdogan himself who declared just a week ago that strengthening the ties between Jerusalem and Ankara was vital to regional stability.
The economic question is of course extremely important to both countries, and rehabilitating diplomatic ties will make a natural gas partnership possible -- whether that means Israel will sell gas to Turkey or export it to Europe via a Turkish pipeline. Both Israel and Turkey would prosper greatly from such a partnership.
It seems, however, that the economic factor is not the primary consideration driving Turkey into Israel's arms, but rather Russian President Vladimir Putin. In light of the rapid and dramatic fallout between Ankara and Moscow, Erdogan must seek out regional allies who will help him protect vital Turkish interests against increasing Russian hostility.
The tensions between Russia and Turkey present Israel with a difficult dilemma. Should it openly side with one party and risk exacerbating tensions with the other? More to the point, can Israel put faith in either Erdogan or Putin in regard to its long-term interests? The answer to this question is clear: Neither Turkey nor Russia is looking to protect or advance Israeli interests; Israel's interests are not their business. But at the same time, they are not enemy states, but states with which dialogue can and should be fostered in search of enough common ground to form a partnership, even if that partnership is utilitarian and tactical.
Erdogan doesn't really want to restore the Israeli-Turkish alliance to its glory days, and in any case it is unlikely that strategic understandings can be reached with Turkey on the Palestinian issue or on matters of military and security cooperation, as they were in the 1990s. Regardless, the two countries have a series of shared interests, chief among them curbing Iran's expansion in the region.
The Russians, meanwhile, are helping Iran solidify its foothold in Syria and Iraq. Truth be told, unlike Turkey, Israel is not pushing for the ousting of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Israel also has no interest in seeing any of the Islamist groups, some of which are supported by Ankara, seize control of Syria. But most importantly, Israel, like Turkey, does not want Iran to increase its sphere of influence in the region, or Assad, with support from Iran and Hezbollah, to re-establish the power he once had.
The bottom line is that Turkey is an important regional power. It is a NATO member, a U.S. ally, and it is working with moderate Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia. Israel need not dwell on any type of dilemma as it moves toward improving its relations with Turkey. It must do precisely what Putin and Erdogan are doing and advance its interests in a calculating manner. From this vantage point, Israeli-Turkish rapprochement is a positive and helpful development, although we should avoid expecting too much from it.
Meanwhile, we should also seek to cultivate our ties with Russia, whose declarations of commitment to Israel are welcome, even if its actions on behalf of Assad are less so. Mostly, however, we must hope that Washington comes to its senses as soon as possible and returns to playing a leadership role in the region.
Prof. Eyal Zisser
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