By Jacob L. Shapiro
Citing “high-level” and “anonymous” sources, Turkish daily Hurriyet reported yesterday that the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy on June 26. The two parties will announce that a deal has been reached to bury the hatchet between the two countries and that the deal will be officially signed in July. Hurriyet’s report comes two days after Channel 1 News in Israel reported that Israeli and Turkish delegations will meet in an unknown European city on June 26, and after Israeli website Ynet quoted a source saying that negotiations could conclude in a matter of days.
At the center of this long-awaited rapprochement is the United States. A smattering of meetings between U.S. officials and both Turkish and Israeli officials have been held in recent weeks. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter met with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık on the sidelines of a NATO meeting on June 14. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Israel on June 16 and Turkey on June 17 to meet with officials. New and controversial Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was in Washington on Monday meeting with Carter at the Pentagon.
These meetings were neither routine nor coincidental. The U.S. has been pushing hard for Turkey and Israel to patch up their relationship ever since the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. Cooperation between the two sides has become more important to the United States as Syria and Iraq have descended into civil war and sectarian conflict and the Islamic State has risen. The U.S. is facing bigger problems in the Middle East than worrying about two of its closest partners continuing to squabble over a six-year-old incident.
However, the U.S. could not simply make Turkey or Israel agree to a deal. If it were that easy, the deal would have been signed back in March 2013, when President Barack Obama essentially bullied Netanyahu into apologizing to Turkey for its actions in the flotilla incident. Turkey had set two more conditions for normalizing relations: compensation for the families affected by the flotilla incident and lifting the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Even after the first two conditions were satisfied, it was the third that stuck in Israel’s craw the most. It was politically impossible for any Israeli leader to even entertain a discussion about lifting the blockade. The 2014 Gaza War exacerbated the situation between Israel and Turkey even more.
For the United States, Turkey is the more critical partner in this equation. Israel is still a U.S. ally, but has become less of a strategic priority. Turkey has become the U.S.’ most critical ally in the Middle East. The U.S. wants Turkey to play a much larger role in helping defeat the Islamic State (Turkey is the best equipped and positioned in the region to do so). Turkey also plays a critical role in blocking the Russians. From the U.S. perspective, the continued bad blood between Turkey and Israel merely pitted two U.S. partners against each other and took focus away from more pressing matters.
The U.S. has always wanted Turkey solidly in its camp, but Turkey had kept the U.S. at arm’s length until last November, after shooting down a Russian plane. Since then, Turkey has had little choice but to align more closely with the United States because Turkey cannot afford to be simultaneously hostile to everyone.
Turkey has begun to shift its policies by closing off some of the border areas with Syria IS was using for smuggling and by agreeing to offer more assistance in general in the fight against IS. Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s (likely non-optional) decision to step down in May further clarified the convergence of interests that is bringing Turkey closer to the U.S.
But the U.S. doesn’t just need Turkey to change its policies. It also has an interest in Turkey appearing strong. And without that element, it is unlikely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would agree to any kind of compromise to mend ties with Israel in the first place. If the Hurriyet report is correct, Israel will agree to allow Turkey to build a hospital in Gaza and will not obstruct Turkish deliveries of supplies to that hospital. It will also allow Turkey to build a sea water distillation plant, and for Turkey and Germany to partner in the construction of a power plant to provide Gaza with electricity.
This is not quite the total removal of the blockade for which Erdoğan has repeatedly asked, but it still allows Erdoğan to save face and demonstrate that, by sticking to his principles on the matter, he has procured improvements for Gazans.
Meanwhile, one of the most striking parts of this deal is that there has not been any vocal disagreement from anyone in the Israeli Cabinet on the issue. This is partly due to the fact that Netanyahu runs the Foreign Ministry as his own personal fiefdom – he still has not announced a foreign minister, preferring to hold the portfolio himself.
Lieberman has a history of particularly bellicose statements toward Turkey on the issue of the Mavi Marmara. Thus far, however, Lieberman has been quietly enjoying his visit to the Pentagon and to Lockheed Martin in the United States, without saying anything about Netanyahu’s weakness or how Israel should not have to apologize for the Mavi Marmara.
Perhaps the U.S. is also using a new 10-year military aid package to get Israel to accept compromises on its blockade of Gaza. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had made such a package a key objective of his trip to Washington in March. It would make sense, considering the timing of the leak of an upcoming agreement and Lieberman’s visit to Washington.
In any case, the U.S. is far more concerned about IS, the future of Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria than it is about the Gaza Strip, and likely put pressure on Israel to compromise in order to get a deal done. If the deal goes through as reported, all of the aid from Turkey will pass through the Israeli port of Ashdod. This means Israel will find itself in the awkward position of inspecting and potentially restricting Turkish goods and nationals attempting to enter Gaza. If and when that happens, the U.S. will still be on Israel’s case not to antagonize Turkey needlessly.
It has been a rough few years for the U.S. when it comes to its interests in the Middle East. Small numbers of American troops are back in Iraq, Syria remains in a state of civil war, the Islamic State rose and remains a powerful force, despite some recent losses. All the while, Turkey was not cooperating with the U.S. on IS and other issues, Israel was focused on its own internal issues and both have been at each other’s throats to varying degrees. To say nothing of the turmoil in Egypt or the nuclear deal with Iran.
There have been many starts and stops to the circuitous diplomatic process that has Israel and Turkey once more on the verge of letting bygones be bygones. And though both interests and facts would seem to point to an imminent reconciliation, nothing can be certain until pen is put to paper.
Even so, the rapprochement is indicative of two things. First, both Lieberman’s quiet acquiescence and Davutoğlu’s exit are powerful examples of the relative insignificance of individual personalities when it comes to decisions affecting national interests. But more important, U.S. leverage with some of its major allies and partners in the region – Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even Iran – is increasing. The potential Turkey-Israel deal indicates that Washington is growing closer to Ankara, developing its most important relationship right now in the Middle East. It also shows how the U.S. is beginning to regain some of its former control in a region steeped in turmoil.