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Israel and Turkey restore full diplomatic relations

Ambassadors to be traded after ties soured following Israel's crackdown on the 2018 Great March of Return protests in Gaza
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu gives an opening statement before meeting with Israeli and Turkish businessmen in Tel Aviv, on 25 May 2022 (AFP)

Israel and Turkey are restoring full diplomatic relations, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid announced in a statement on Wednesday. The two countries will now trade ambassadors.

The decision comes after Lapid's visit to Ankara and his meetings with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and his conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"In light of the positive developments in Israel-Turkey relations over the past year, the two countries decided to return to full diplomatic representation," the statement said.

"The renewal of relations with Turkey is an important asset for regional stability and a very important economic asset for the citizens of Israel. We will continue to act and strengthen Israel's international status in the world," Lapid added.

'The renewal of relations with Turkey is an important asset for regional stability and a very important economic asset for the citizens of Israel'

- Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid

Cavusoglu confirmed the news and said Turkey will continue to defend Palestinian rights and the status of Jerusalem through its ambassador in Tel Aviv.

He said they will now choose someone to be appointed as ambassador.

Israeli foreign ministry official Alon Ushpiz spoke with the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sadat Unal on Tuesday and "the two concluded the matter", the statement said.

The officials decided to raise the level of relations between the two countries to full diplomatic representation and to reinstate the ambassadors and consuls general.

Relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have been rocky since 2011, when Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador after a UN report into Israel's raid of the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza in 2010, which killed nine Turkish nationals.

The rift was healed in 2016 when full diplomatic relations were restored and both countries sent ambassadors.

Tensions were renewed in 2018 when Israeli forces killed scores of Palestinians taking part in the Great March of Return protests in Gaza. The protesters demanded the implementation of refugees’ right of return and an end to the crippling 11-year siege on Gaza.

Turkey recalled all of its diplomats and ordered Israel’s envoy out of the country.

Intelligence cooperation

The latest development comes five months after Israel's President Isaac Herzog visited Erdogan in Ankara, in the first visit by an Israeli head of state to Turkey since 2008.

Before that visit, a year of silent Turkish and Israeli intelligence cooperation had convinced Tel Aviv that Turkey was a rational actor that acted upon its interests, rather than ideological standpoints.

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Ankara believed that certain operations, including the foiling of attempts on Israeli lives in Turkey and elsewhere in the region, showed tangible evidence that it could deliver and had the resources to satisfy its own security needs without outside support. 

“I think the Israelis now see that Turkey is a serious state with means and a rational strategy in the region, [one] that doesn’t have an aim to undermine anybody, but solely protects its interests,” a senior Turkish official told Middle East Eye at the time. 

An Israeli official told MEE that Israel has its own motivations to mend ties, with the Biden administration seeking ways to extricate the United States from the Middle East, and appearing close to signing another nuclear deal with Iran. With this in mind, Israel was looking to cement ties with other actors that could counterbalance Tehran.

But they were proceeding with caution when it came to Turkey. A previous attempt at reconciliation collapsed in 2018 over Israeli violations at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“Israel cannot play dual containment policy in the region anyway,” a source close to the Turkish government told MEE. “You cannot both contain Iran and a country like Turkey, which has really considerable military and intelligence capabilities that are proven in a set of countries.”

Common ally in Azerbaijan

Experts believe both sides found value in their relationship and incentives to come closer during events first in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and then in Afghanistan in 2021.

Turkey and Israel have a common ally in Azerbaijan, and found themselves working to help it by supplying military resources used by Baku to push Armenian forces out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

'The ramifications of the [Russia-Ukraine] war can be seen as another impetus for Turkey and Israel to improve their communication channels'

- Gallia Lindenstrauss, analyst

“We didn’t coordinate anything, but it showed everyone that Turkey and Israel indeed have common security challenges and could work together in some areas,” said the Turkish official. 

Gallia Lindenstrauss, an analyst with expertise in Turkey-Israel relations, said Turkey’s recent rapprochement with other regional actors, such as the UAE, was reassuring for Israel.

"The US withdrawal from Afghanistan emphasised for the regional actors the wish of the US to reduce its presence in the region, and that they have to work together to maintain the regional order,” she said.

“The rapprochement between Turkey and Israel began before the war in Ukraine started, but the ramifications of this war can be seen as another impetus for Turkey and Israel to improve their communication channels and coordination.” 

Iran and Hamas

However, Turkish officials have been careful to point out that their relationship with Israel wasn't an alliance against Iran.

“We are very clear in what we do. We have a really principled stance on this,” the Turkish official said. “We are very protective of our own territory. We won’t allow any actor, whether it is Iran or anybody else, to conduct covert operations in Turkey.”

Turkey has systematically foiled Iranian, Russian and even Israeli intelligence operations in its territory since 2020. 

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“As with Iran, we made our grievances public by naming and shaming the operatives,” the official said. “And then we started to expose their operations and collapse the entire networks. We didn’t do it for anybody, just for our own sake."

One particularly touchy subject between Turkey and Israel has always been Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement that rules the Gaza Strip. Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group, a label Turkey rejects.

Last year, Israel said that it would want to see Ankara take some steps against the presence of Hamas leaders in Turkey before launching into reconciliation talks. Turkey refused, however, maintaining relations with the group and continuing to host some of its leaders in Istanbul.

A senior Israeli official earlier this year told the Jerusalem Post that this time they didn’t have any preconditions regarding Hamas, an overt backstep. Turkish officials note Turkey accepted many of the Hamas figures as part of deals Israel itself struck with Hamas.

“There has been no change of Turkey’s policy regarding Hamas,” the source close to the government said. “As it was before, Turkey won’t allow Hamas to conduct attacks in Israel. And that has been the case for many years."

Pipe dream

Turkish and Israeli officials have both said that the prospect of bringing Israeli gas to Turkey through a pipeline in the eastern Mediterranean was a chief incentive to repair their relationship.

“The market logic to bring Israeli gas to Turkey for domestic use and export to Europe has existed for at least eight years and has not changed,” said Michael Tanchum, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. 

“With events in Ukraine focusing a sense of urgency on natural gas, combined with Turkey's recent rapprochement efforts with Israel and other Middle Eastern actors, the previous political obstacles could be resolved."  

A second Turkish official said both sides had been conducting a feasibility report to work towards bringing Israeli gas to Turkey, yet they were aware of the challenges. 

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An Israeli plan to build a pipeline from its Leviathan gas field to Cyprus and then to Greece has effectively collapsed, as the US withdrew support for the so-called East-Med Pipeline Project last year. Some sources based in Washington told MEE that Israel might have encouraged the Biden administration to do so because it didn’t want to risk a rupture with Cyprus and Greece. 

Israel's natural gas reserves are estimated to be 800 billion cubic metres, with around 2.2 trillion cubic metres of gas believed to be awaiting discovery. 

Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel and a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and the EU, said the Turkish route for Israeli gas has long been seen as the best feasible solution.

“Yet there are a series of obstacles, like the political issues with Cyprus and Syria,” he said. “If you build the pipeline close to Cyprus, you have an issue. If you build it close to the Syrian coast, you have an issue."

Eran believes Israel’s recent efforts to bring Israeli gas to Egyptian facilities to install them as LNG and ship them to the international markets also decreased the importance of bringing it to Turkey.

“However, it still has great potential if you could work the Lebanese gas fields and combine it with Israeli and some Egyptian gas. The pipeline could really make a change,” he said.

With Russia's war on Ukraine, Europe is under pressure to diversify from Russian gas. But according to Eran, Israeli gas cannot replace Russia's, but could nonetheless diversify European energy resources to a great extent. 

And with Lebanon and Israel technically enemy states, working out a deal with them may not be on the horizon any time soon. However, the senior Turkish official says whether with Lebanese gas or not, Israel would prefer the Turkish option because it would be far less costly than other options, despite the political issues.

“With the Egyptian option, you have many costs, from carrying, stockpiling, liquefying and selling it to the spot markets with a much lower price,” the official said. “But Turkey itself is a market with a growing energy need, and it has several pipelines laid down to export it to Europe with a good price."