Once upon a time Turkey and Israel were the greatest of friends. In March 1949 Turkey was the first Islamic nation to recognize the new state of Israel. Over the next fifty years, despite some ups and downs, the relationship flourished. In the Cold War Turkey was a key ally of the Western camp and in the 1990s, under the aegis of the United States, Israel and Turkey established bilateral defense, security and economic partnerships which burgeoned into strong social and cultural ties.
In the early years of the new millennium Turkey was welcoming some 500,000 Israeli tourists each year, while in May 2004, with Israel suffering a major water shortage, the two countries struck a unique deal under which Turkey undertook to ship to Israel some 50 million cubic meters of drinking water each year for the next 20 years. But by then Recep Tayyip Erdogan had become Turkey’s prime minister, and a sea change in Turco-Israeli relations was brewing.
Erdogan is a root-and-branch Muslim Brotherhood adherent, and has been since he first entered politics, but as regards Israel he was careful not to promote too radical an agenda too soon. For his first few years in office, Erdogan maintained the good relationship. In 2005 he undertook a formal visit to Israel, and in November 2007 Israel’s then- president Shimon Peres visited Ankara and addressed the Turkish parliament.
For a while security co-operation, including arms deals and joint air training exercises in Turkish airspace continued. There was talk of constructing an Israel-Turkey pipeline from the newly discovered reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Israeli waters, to exploit the lucrative European markets. The turning point in bilateral relations came in 2009, with the first conflict between Israel and Hamas which had seized power in the Gaza strip and had been firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel.
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In the annual international gathering at Davos that year, Erdogan rounded on Shimon Peres, calling the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip a “crime against humanity” and “barbaric” before stalking off the stage. Was this the first step in a planned exercise aimed at establishing Erdogan as the champion of the Sunni Islamic world? Was the disastrous Mavi Marmara affair that was to follow already in the planning stage?
In any event, the last day of May 2010 saw an encounter on the high seas between a Turkish flotilla of six vessels, nominally on a humanitarian mission to Gaza, and the Israeli military. During the encounter, nine of those on board the Mavi Marmara lost their lives. Erdogan manipulated the event into a rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations lasting six years, but the series of investigations that followed revealed a cynical anti-Israel plot long planned with the connivance of Turkey’s ruling AKP party and possibly of Erdogan himself, its leader.
Oddly, however, throughout the six long years of intensive negotiations that finally put the affair to rest, Israeli-Turkish trade grew by 19 percent, as against a growth of only 11 percent in Turkey’s overall foreign trade for the same period.
The spat was put to rest when Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, tendered an apology for the loss of Turkish life, and a financial settlement to the families of the deceased was agreed. Accordingly, on February 7, 2018 Turkey’s culture and tourism minister Nabi Avcı visited Israel, the first Turkish ministerial visit to Israel for seven years. Avcı used his visit to promote Israeli tourism to Turkey which, in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, had fallen to a mere 79,000 in 2011. It has subsequently picked up, year by year.
The project to ship drinking water from Turkey to Israel never really got off the ground. It was cancelled in 2006, but by then the concept had already been overtaken by Israel’s advances in water technology which have converted one of the world’s driest countries into the unlikeliest of water-rich nations. Israel is now seeking outlets for its surplus water.
Another Turco-Israeli project conceived during the golden years, the gas pipeline, is unlikely to come to fruition. Erdogan’s unremitting attacks on Israel, the latest occasioned by US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, make Turkey a less-than-attractive partner. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has turned instead to Turkey’s traditional foes – Greece and Cyprus – and is in the process of forging a strong tripartite alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In December 2017 the leaders of the three countries signed a memorandum of understanding regarding a possible gas pipeline to run from Israel to Cyprus, then to Greece, and onward to Italy – a more expensive, if somewhat more congenial, alternative to the Israeli-Turkey idea of bringing Israel’s LNG to Europe.
However something far more significant than a gas deal is in the making, namely a new geopolitical entity in the eastern Mediterranean, a tripartite alliance that promises to bring both stability and the prospect of enormous technological, economic and environmental advances to the region. In an effort to put more flesh on the bones of their joint declaration issued in July 2017, Netanyahu, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, and Cypriot prime minister Nicos Anastasiades are scheduled to hold a summit in Nicosia in May, their fourth since 2016.
The three nations have already greatly strengthened their security and military collaboration by way of joint air, naval and ground force exercises. In their declaration the leaders agreed to strengthen collaboration in the manufacturing and commercial sectors, with an emphasis on technological and industrial research. They agreed to cooperate in electronic technology and telecommunications, especially earth remote sensing and communication satellites. They also agreed to encourage space technology and to support new cable interconnections by way of Fiber Optic Undersea Cable. They gave special prominence to protecting the environment, with special focus on protection of the marine environment, water and wastewater management, and adaptation to the impact of climate change.
In short, while continuing to foster economic ties with Turkey, Israel is forging a new partnership with Greece and Cyprus – a union with enormous potential for enhancing the prospects and life-chances of all who live in the eastern Mediterranean.