By George Friedman
There have been leaks occurring for several days about Israel and Turkey holding secret talks in Switzerland and that they were close to a deal, but not yet there. To be fair, the leaks followed a statement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he returned to Turkey from Turkmenistan on Dec. 14. He said that the region needed Israel and Turkey to normalize relations, and that such normalization would be in the interest of everyone in the region. Everyone assumed from this that there were some sort of talks underway, and then sources, normally authorized, began stoking the fire. We will assume that most of the leakers worked for the respective governments and were doing official leaks, leaks intended by governments that they preferred not to go on the record. But some could well have come from opponents of the deal. The Turkish Islamist wing does not want any deal with Israel. And the Israeli right is also not usually happy with such things. So what makes this interesting is that in spite of the rumors, there has been no uproar on either side.
Going back to the founding of Israel in 1948, the Israelis and the Turks were undocumented allies. Nothing was official but they worked closely together, particularly after the rise of Soviet influence in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Both of them found themselves threatened by the Soviets and that bound them together. But that was supplemented by the fact that neither were Arabs and both had been constructed on a basically secular front.
After the Soviet threat disappeared, both countries found themselves with more room to maneuver, both externally and internally. In Israel, the premiership of Menachem Begin in 1977 began a period, still in place, of conservative governments. Turkey in the 2000s underwent a fundamental transformation when the AKP took power and held it. Though the AKP is not Islamist in the sense that it seeks to apply the laws of the Quran to the state, it grew out of a tradition of Islamism and at the very least can be called a religiously conservative party. Turkey had been founded by Kamal Ataturk as a secular, European nation in which religion was marginalized. During the post-Soviet period, where secular Arab radicals declined and Islamist radicals emerged, the Turkish position as a purely secular state became difficult to maintain. Its own Muslim population, long marginalized by the secularists, was moved by what was happening in the Islamic world, and inevitably a party that sought to balance the secularists and the religious conservatives arose. And over time the party has had to appease the Islamist camp.
This strained Israeli-Turkish relations, and the absence of the Soviet threat eliminated the glue. Then a single incident tore the relationship apart. In May 2010, a flotilla of Turkish civilian boats tried to go to Gaza from Turkey, carrying supplies to Gaza. The Israelis insisted on inspecting the ships, and while they were being inspected, some of the crew assaulted the Israeli special operations team inspecting the boat, carrying deadly weapons like hammers but no firearms, and the Israelis opened fire, killing several of them.
From the Turkish point of view this represented a deliberate attack by Israel on a Turkish flagged ship, and killing of Turkish citizens, both without provocation. From the Israeli point of view, it was the Turks who were provocative by allowing the boat to sail to Gaza and by either not screening who was on board or deliberately ignoring who was on board. The Turks insisted on an apology and that Israel pay restitution to the families of the dead. The Israelis refused and the Turks froze relations between the two countries.
How frozen it was depended on who you talked to. Some claimed that whatever the government position, intelligence sharing continued. They still had a common hostility to Iran, and concerns about Russian penetration of the Caucasus. And after 2009, both governments shared a personal dislike of Barack Obama. However, there were critical things that divided them. Erdogan wanted to head a government that was a leader of the Islamic world and that meant he wanted to be a champion of the Palestinians. The Israelis didn’t appreciate Turkish involvement, however symbolic, with the Palestinians. Turkey did not do anything material but constantly picked at the sore. The Israelis felt they were strong enough to be insulted by the Turks, and so the situation remained.
There were several attempts at negotiation, some initiated by the United States, but none succeeded in the end. Therefore, the question is why this could be happening now. The broad answer is that the region is in chaos, the United States is not going to deal with IS on the ground, and both Israel and Turkey are concerned about the chaos. But they have been concerned about the chaos in different ways. The Turks are bitterly hostile toward the Assad regime. While having no love for that regime, the Israelis are more concerned with IS taking over Damascus. As a cripple, Assad is a useful buffer for the Israelis. The Turks were not as appalled by IS as others, and in fact, were reported to be selling the group oil on the open market and allowing IS to use Turkish banks for managing their money. The Turks saw themselves as managing the chaos.
And then they shot down a Russian plane and the entire balance of power shifted in the region. The Russians were enraged, but in fact, their military deployment was much smaller than imagined. But the Turks looked around and realized that in many ways the Russians had been their only major ally. They had alienated the United Sates consistently since 2003. The Iranians supported Assad and saw the Turks as a threat. The European Union was furious at them for being the bridge to Europe of the Syrian refugees. And the Israeli relationship had nearly evaporated. The Russians and Iranians were not going to shift their position. The Americans were always open to the Turks but the ongoing tension with Israel was a problem, particularly with the persistent rumor that Turkey had some sort of relationship with IS. A shift in position required some sort of clarification.
None of these shifts was easy but the key was to heal the breach with the Americans, and the key to that was to demonstrate that they were not radical Islamists. And there was no better way to show this than to reach out to Israel. They couldn’t drop the demand for reparations for the dead, as that was a core political issue at home. But other demands, such as lifting the embargo on Gaza could be dropped. Or Turkey might even be surprised that there were circumstances and assurances under which the Israeli blockade might be dropped. The Americans made sure that the Israelis would pay compensation, because the Americans wanted closer ties with Turkey under the current circumstances.
And therefore the negotiations are underway. It is unlikely to extend to a settlement on Gaza, but from the American point of view, anything that draws Turkey closer to the position of opposing IS is beneficial and in the strange logic of the Middle East, an agreement on the flotilla incident might do it. In the end, Turkey wants to be left alone but can’t afford to be isolated. And with the Russians hostile, they needed the Americans and therefore the Israelis.
Nothing is settled and of course we are dealing with the Middle East. Nevertheless, a realignment triggered by the Russians and IS, and beneficial to the United States, is underway. Maybe.