JERUSALEM—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has likely vilified Israel more than any other national leader outside of Iran in recent years, sounded in a recent press briefing like Israel’s best about-to-be friend.
"Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region," he told reporters on a flight back home from Saudi Arabia last week, where he met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. "And we too must accept that we need Israel. This is a reality in the region."
Erdogan did not spell out the geo-political rationale that lay behind that assessment but commentators did not have to go far to find likely reasons.
Gas accounts for one of the reasons—the gas flow from Russia that Moscow has threatened to turn off following the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish fighters last month and the gas that Israel has found in large offshore deposits. The bulk of Turkey’s gas supply presently comes from Russia.
Another reason is the tangled realignment of forces in the Middle East in the wake of the Islamic State’s appearance and Russia’s intervention in Syria, not far from the Turkish border. Israel—an economically and militarily strong neighbor not caught up in the intra-Moslem feuding—might make a useful ally one day.
Relations between Turkey and Israel nosedived in May 2010 after Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turkish militants on a civilian vessel attempting to run Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The commandos responded lethally after the militants attacked the Israeli force rappelling onto the deck of the vessel, the Mavi Marmara, the militants using knives and metal bars. Both sides withdrew ambassadors and Turkey cut its defense ties but did not sever diplomatic relations.
Urged on by the United States, the two nations have held intermittent talks over the years aimed at resolving the dispute. To date, Israel has met one of the three demands laid down by Ankara by offering an apology for the killings. The second demand, payment of compensation to the families of the deceased, has not yet been met but Israel has agreed in principle and relevant officials say that the amount will not be a problem.
The third demand, that Israel lift its naval blockade of Gaza, has remained unresolved, with Israel saying it will not permit vessels to dock in Gaza for fear that they might smuggle in rockets and other armaments to Hamas. In recent weeks, however, there have been hints in the media of both countries that a compromise will be found, perhaps by giving Turkey a greater role in shipping civilian goods to Gaza through Israeli ports.
The Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman, reported last week that Ankara was looking forward to resuming military ties with Tel Aviv and purchasing military hardware such as advanced drones and surveillance systems.
In Israel, Erdogan’s anti-Israel stance over the years has been viewed in the context of Ankara’s aim of restoring Turkey’s status in the Arabic speaking world to that of the Ottoman Empire, which expired with the First World War. In view of the collapse of national structures in the wake of the Arab Spring, there is little mileage to be had in the vision of a restored Ottoman-like Empire. Israeli officials, however, also viewed Erdogan’s unfriendly stance as fuelled by his own increasingly Islamic orientation. If Erdogan follows through on his seeming turnabout it would be a triumph of realpolitik in a region adrift in ideology.