National Security

Turkish President Says Normalization of Relations with Israel Possible

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan / AP

JERUSALEM—After years of condemning Israel at every opportunity, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly raised the possibility Monday of normalization of relations with the Jewish state.

His change of tone was received coolly in Jerusalem where Erdogan’s words were attributed to Turkey’s strategic difficulties following its downing last month of a Russian military aircraft, which briefly penetrated its border.

Erdogan told journalists that normalization of relations was possible if Israel lifted its sea blockade of the Gaza Strip and paid compensation to the families of nine Turks who were killed in 2010 when they attempted to resist Israeli naval commandos who seized a Turkish vessel defying the blockade.

"There is so much," said Erdogan, "that we, Israel, Palestine and the region can gain from such a normalization process. The region is in need of this."

The director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, Dore Gold, issued a short statement in reply. "Israel has always sought stable relations with Turkey and is constantly looking for ways to get there."

A less restrained reply came from an unnamed senior Israeli official quoted by the Israeli Ynet news site. Noting that Israel had years ago agreed to Erdogan’s demand for an apology and declared its readiness to compensate the families, he said the ball is in Turkey’s court.

"He shouldn’t be silly by insisting on the removal of the Gaza blockade because Turkey knows there is no such thing. We are not about to pay more for normalization." Israel says it bars shipping from Gaza for fear of rockets and other armaments being smuggled in but that it permits hundreds of trucks to enter Gaza each day with commercial supplies.

One of Turkey’s main motives in seeking reconciliation with Israel, say analysts, is the discovery of large gas fields off Israel’s shore. In the wake of the downing of the Russian plane by a Turkish fighter, Moscow has hinted that it might curtail its gas exports to Turkey, which Istanbul regards as vital. Israel has been engaged in extensive talks with Turkey’s traditional rival, Greece, and with Cyprus about exporting gas to those countries, with the pipeline extending into Europe. Turkish officials and businessmen have expressed considerable interest in having the gas pipeline extend from Israel to their country.

Israel and Turkey have in the past had strong commercial and military ties, with the Israeli air force training in Turkey’s skies and the Turkish armed forces purchasing large amounts of military equipment from Israel. Commercial contacts remain but military links have been curtailed.  Businessmen in both countries have expressed interest in seeing strong ties in all spheres renewed.

Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador following the 2010 blockade incident and Israel reciprocated in kind but diplomatic relations were not severed. Erdogan’s virulently anti-Israel rhetoric in recent years appear to stem, at least in part, from his own Islamist leanings.

But Turkey’s current difficulties may be giving political considerations precedence. Apart from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan is at odds with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The strong Russian military presence in Syria and in Syrian waters, the increasing strength of the Kurds on Turkey’s border, and Turkey’s vulnerability to ISIS terror attacks may be leading inexorably to talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For Israel too, national interests are likely to take precedence over distaste for Turkey’s leader.