Turk-Israel Reconciliation Talks Intensify on Russia Crisis

  • Sides discuss normalizing diplomatic ties suspended in 2010
  • Officials say Turkey wants deal as Moscow imposes sanctions

Talks between Turkey and Israel to end a five-year diplomatic rift have gained momentum as Turkey seeks to reduce its reliance on Russian natural gas, according to two Turkish officials familiar with the negotiations.

Contacts became more intense after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian warplane last month, prompting economic sanctions from Moscow, the officials said. Normalized relations would allow Turkey to import natural gas from Israel, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because reconciliation talks are confidential.

Ties frayed in 2010 after a deadly Israeli naval raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship trying to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Turkey has demanded compensation for the deaths and an end to the embargo. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Army Radio on Tuesday that Erdogan is making “unacceptable” demands, but he hopes the Turkish leader will “come to his senses” so the two countries can “put this episode behind us.”

The Turkish officials’ accounts of the talks come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan adopts a more conciliatory tone toward Israel. He said a settlement of the conflict would be “beneficial,” according to a report Monday in the Haberturk newspaper.

Simultaneous With Cyprus

Turkey’s outreach to Israel is proceeding in tandem with negotiations between Turkish and Greek Cypriots to reunify the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, whose north is occupied by the Turkish military. A solution to both conflicts would allow Turkey to buy gas from both Israel and Cyprus, thereby diversifying supply and bringing it a step closer to its long-held dream of becoming an energy hub between East and West, one official said.

Israel and Turkey appeared on the edge of resuming full diplomatic relations in 2013 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the flotilla incident, at the urging of visiting President Barack Obama. But negotiations stalled over Turkey’s demands.

One Turkish official said reconciliation might follow a possible deal on the reunification of Cyprus in the spring. The other said a compromise may be reached “surprisingly quickly” in the coming months.

While Israel is eager to conclude an earlier compensation agreement, it wants assurances its soldiers won’t be prosecuted in connection with the naval raid, an Israeli official said, asking not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to comment. It’s also dismissed Turkey’s demand to lift the Gaza embargo.

Ya’alon raised other issues that could hinder reconciliation. He accused Turkey of sheltering operatives of the Hamas Islamic group that controls Gaza who are organizing attacks on Israel. “There are several issues on the agenda between us and then, and between the West and them before they stipulate conditions for resolving the Marmara issue,” he said.

The Turkish Islamic group behind the flotilla, the Humanitarian Aid Foundation, or IHH, has filed charges against four former Israeli military commanders, “We won’t drop charges against them unless families of the victims say so,” Osman Atalay, a senior official IHH official, said by phone on Dec. 15.

Willing to Compromise

A Turkish energy industry official close to the talks said while Israel is more cautious about the prospects of a deal, Turkey may be willing to compromise on the Gaza blockade if Israel compensates flotilla victims. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Before Erdogan took power in 2003, Turkey was Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world, and their militaries had strong ties. After the flotilla affair, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador, recalled its own envoy and pulled out of joint war games. While Israeli military sales to Turkey were halted, other trade ties proved resilient. Turkish exports to Israel jumped to about $3 billion in 2014 from $2 billion in 2010, according to Turkey’s state statistics institute. Israeli exports to Turkey rose to $2.8 billion from $1.3 billion during that period, according to Israeli government data.

“Israel must accept its guilt over the killing of Turkish citizens and take necessary steps to repair ties accordingly,” Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Tugrul Turkes said in an interview on Monday. “Israel knows well that the only secure export route for its natural gas would run through Turkey to Europe.”

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks, said Netanyahu continues to pursue alternatives to a gas pipeline to Turkey, and will meet in January with the leaders of Cyprus and Greece, who have expressed interest in building a fuel conduit to Europe running through their waters.

Infrastructure Projects

Turkey is already pressing ahead with infrastructure projects that would be key to any gas imports from Israel and Cyprus. It recently announced incentives to build the kind of storage facilities that would be key to serving a gas hub. It’s also planning to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Mediterranean coast, the energy official said.

The location of the proposed storage site is the southern town of Tarsus near the Mediterranean coast, a likely entry point of any gas pipeline from Israel, according to Matthew Bryza, a non-executive board member at Turcas Petrol AS, a Turkish company that would be interested in helping to build an underwater pipeline from Israel.

Any pipeline would have to cross the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus, which makes resolution of the Cyprus conflict key to any gas project, Bryza said. If talks to unify the island’s Turkish north and Greek south succeed, Cypriot gas can be fed into the same pipeline and shipped to Turkey for consumption there or delivery elsewhere in Europe, he said.

“Political dynamics of this project are aligning,” Bryza said in a Dec. 10 phone interview. “The biggest natural gas market in the region that is credit-worthy is Turkey.”

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