25.05.2020 Author: Valery Kulikov

Is Israel Starting to Develop Closer Ties with Turkey Behind the Scenes?


It is no secret to anyone that President Donald Trump is unquestionably Benjamin Netanyahu’s most important diplomatic as well as strategic ally. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel on May 13 once again proved this to be the case. The US official and Benjamin Netanyahu’s new unity government discussed plans to annex the River Jordan’s West Bank and the Jordan Valley; the Iranian threat, and the consolidation of Iranian positions in Syria.

The annexation, stipulated in the plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unveiled by US President Donald Trump and referred to as “the deal of the century”, was a key promise made by Benjamin Netanyahu during his election campaign. And now the Israeli Prime Minister is intent on keeping his word during Donald Trump’s presidential term. According to the unity government agreement, Benjamin Netanyahu can introduce the annexation proposal to the Knesset (the unicameral national legislature of Israel) after July 1.

In order for these plans to succeed and to ensure various solutions to Israeli issues garner support from Washington, Benjamin Netanyahu has, on more than one occasion, shown his willingness to back any of USA’s Middle Eastern initiatives and policies. This is especially true when it comes to the two countries’ joint efforts to fight Iran, which, owing to its powerful army, is viewed as a key threat to Israeli dominance in the region by Tel Aviv nowadays. As Israel continues to take orders from Washington, it aims to cause chaos and mayhem among pro-Iranian fighters in Syria, who oppose the United States, by carrying out regular air strikes against them.

Although it is clearly disadvantageous for Israel to damage its trade and economic ties with China, in light of the intensifying confrontation between Washington and Beijing, Tel Aviv, under pressure from the United State, recently announced that it was prepared to reconsider the bid of the Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison Holdings conglomerate to build the largest desalination facility in the world, worth $1.5 billion.

Since Benjamin Netanyahu chose to unquestioningly support Washington’s plans to reconfigure the Middle East, he was subsequently forced to revise Israel’s ties with a number of countries in the region. And as Washington has now decided to play a cunning game with Ankara in order to pull it away from Russia, Israel has recently begun to adjust its relations with Turkey, which have cooled considerably over the past years.

It would be worth reminding our readers that the bilateral ties started to worsen as Israel’s stance towards the Gaza Strip became increasingly tougher, and as the Turkish leader pivoted towards a more religious path. In fact, in May 2018, Israeli Ambassador Eitan Naeh was ordered to leave Turkey after Tel Aviv used deadly force against Palestinians who had gathered at the border fence in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently retaliated. Then the Turkish government staged an unscheduled summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul — the largest association of Muslim-majority countries comprising 57 member states. Ankara used its influence to ensure the OIC supported the establishment of an independent international commission to investigate the killing of numerous Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In addition, Turkey’s open support for Hamas has been a serious irritant for Tel Aviv. Saleh al-Arouri, the Deputy Head of the Political Bureau of Hamas, has been freely travelling throughout Turkey despite the fact that, in 2018, the United States offered a $5 million reward for any information about his whereabouts. And according to information from Israeli and Egyptian intelligence agencies, over ten members of Hamas moved from the Gaza Strip to Istanbul in 2018.  The Telegraph reported that operatives of the Palestinian organization were plotting attacks against Israel from Turkey (among other locations) while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned a blind eye to their activities. This piece of news adds a new dimension to the regular clashes in the Gaza Strip. A Turkish diplomatic source denied these propagandist claims, made by the British newspaper under pressure from Washington and Tel Aviv, and stated that, from Ankara’s point of view, Hamas was “not a terrorist organization” but a legitimate Palestinian political party, which had won in the last legislative election.

Since the 1960s, Israel has viewed the Kurds as a “protective buffer” of sorts against its enemies. Tel Aviv began openly providing military intelligence and economic support to the Kurds in northern Syria, because Israel views their possible defeat as dangerous for its own security since pro-Iranian alliances could subsequently strengthen their positions in that region.

As the relationship between Tel Aviv and Ankara continued to deteriorate recently, The Times of Israel admitted that Israel “lobbied Washington to drop Ankara from the F-35 program after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went ahead with a purchase” of S-400 Russian-made missile defense systems.

Lately, the Eastern Mediterranean has become another point of contention between Israel and Turkey. The region has always been important for Tel Aviv because more than 90% of its exports and imports are transported via it. Gas fields that have been discovered in the Israeli Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean and are currently being exploited have also contributed to the growing importance of the region. At the end of November 2019, Tukey signed important agreements, which impact its gas policies in the Mediterranean, with two Middle Eastern nations: Qatar and Libya. In order to try and curb Ankara’s ambitions to expand its reach, in January, an announcements that a new organization called the East Mediterranean Gas Forum would be created was made. It would comprise Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan as well as the Palestinian National Authority; and its headquarters would be in Cairo.

Despite these serious disagreements between Israel and Turkey, which exist to this day, to please Washington Tel Aviv recently started conducting behind the scenes negotiations with Ankara in order to normalize the relationship between the two countries. As envisioned in US plans, in the future, these relations should become key levers of influence in the region. In the official Twitter channel of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in answer to the question from a user about whether Turkey and Israel would be friends and allies again as in the 1990s, the following response appeared: “We are proud of our diplomatic relations with Turkey. We hope our ties grow even stronger in the future.”

A number of Turkish and Arab media outlets have recently reported that Israel and Turkey were conducting secret negotiations to reach a deal on maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean, similar to the agreement already signed by Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord, which, not long ago, elicited protests from Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and also Israel. In addition, recently, Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, France and the UAE issued a joint statement that condemned Turkey’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean and accused Ankara of violating international law. It is worth noting that Israel was not among the nations that denounced Turkey.

Further evidence in support of the theory that Israel and Turkey are engaged in secret talks even includes posted maps showing the agreed on maritime borders. Still, some analysts believe that Israel is unlikely to reach such a deal with Turkey as it would not be in line with Israel’s already existing agreements with Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and other nations. However, it is fairly obvious that Israel follows the US lead on the global arena, thus, a contemptuous attitude towards previously reached international accords exhibited by these nations would not be a surprise as such behavior has become the norm for both of them.

Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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