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October 19, 2016 3:01 pm

Expert: Israeli-Turkish Relations Getting Back on Track, But Won’t Return to Previous Peak

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy

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Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz meets with his Turkish counterpart Berat Albayrak in Istanbul last week. Photo: Twitter.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz with his Turkish counterpart, Berat Albayrak, in Istanbul last week. Photo: Twitter.

Last week’s visit to Istanbul by Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was a clear sign that relations between the Jewish state and Turkey are getting back on track in the wake of the reconciliation deal reached between the two countries earlier this year, but they likely will never return to what they were at their peak in the 1990s, an expert on Turkish foreign relations told The Algemeiner on Wednesday.

Gallia Lindenstrauss — a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) — said, “The normalization process is going relatively well, and it is not surprising that the first Israeli minister to visit Turkey since the Mavi Marmara affair was the energy minister, as both sides have indicated that cooperation in the energy field was one of the reasons that pushed them towards signing the normalization agreement.”

In June, Israel and Turkey — once close regional allies — signed an agreement to restore relations that had broken down in 2010 following the interception of a Turkish flotilla that sought to breach the Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Ten Turkish pro-Palestinian activists were killed in violent clashes with Israeli naval commandos on board the Mavi Marmara — the flotilla’s lead ship.

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Following his meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Berat Albayrak, last Thursday, Steinitz said the possibility of constructing a natural gas pipeline between Israel and Turkey was a topic of discussion.

“Building a pipeline from Israel to Turkey is one of the cheaper ways to export the natural gas from Israel, and Turkey has shown interest in diversifying its gas supplies — and in Israeli gas in this context,” Lindenstrauss told The Algemeiner. “Hence, on paper, it seems like a win-win situation for both sides.”

However, she noted, there are also many potential roadblocks standing in the way of the construction of such a pipeline.

“Some of them relate to the mistrust that still exists between the sides, and some of them are not directly related to bilateral relations. These include the ongoing peace negotiations in Cyprus — since the pipeline is likely to be built in the economic waters of Cyprus — and Russia-Turkey relations, as the two states have just signed an agreement regarding the building of the ‘Turkish Stream,’ which can be seen as making an Israel-Turkey pipeline somewhat redundant,” she said.

Asked whether the failed coup attempt in Turkey this summer had any effect on the country’s relations with Israel, Lindenstrauss replied, “The normalization process was slightly delayed, but both sides have indicated that they are still committed to moving forward with the process, and so the delay has not had a substantial impact.”

Lindenstrauss called the coup attempt itself “a watershed event in Turkey” whose repercussions “will be long-felt.”

“The deterioration of relations between Turkey and the US and the EU is not a positive development from an Israeli perspective, since from Israel’s viewpoint, it is better that Turkey be anchored as much as possible to its Western allies,” she said.

In addition to natural gas, Steinitz and Albayrak also talked about efforts to better the lives of ordinary people in Gaza. In July, as reported by The Algemeiner, the first shipment of Turkish aid since 2010 arrived in the Hamas-controlled enclave.

“Israeli policymakers understand that significant reconstruction in Gaza is a must, and that successful reconstruction may delay a new round of violence,” Lindenstrauss said. “The cost of such reconstruction, however, is huge. There is need for international actors to step in. In this respect, Turkey can be seen as one of these actors that have shown in the past their commitment to Gaza and that it is is still committed to the improvement of the situation there.”

“But,” Lindenstrauss continued, “it is true that more Turkish involvement in Gaza might create a basis for future Israeli-Turkish friction — if, for example, in the next round of violence, a Turkish-built infrastructure installation in Gaza is harmed by Israeli forces. However, I think that in the overall calculation there are more benefits than disadvantages for Turkish assistance to Gaza from an Israeli point of view.”

Despite the ongoing repair of their ties, Israel and Turkey still view regional challenges — such as the civil war in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program — very differently, Lindenstrauss pointed out.

“Turkey is mostly concerned with what is occurring in northern Syria, while Israel is more worried about what is happening in southern Syria,” she said. “In addition, Turkey has chosen a much more cooperative approach to Iran than Israel, and I don’t expect this to change substantially in the near future.”

One positive consequence of improved Israeli-Turkish relations, Lindenstrauss said, was that this “enables Israel to cooperate with NATO.”

“During the crisis years, Turkey vetoed such cooperation, which in the past has proven beneficial both for Israel and NATO and is needed now more than ever in light of the developments in the region,” she said.

Lindenstrauss concluded that while a full return of ties between Israel and Turkey to what they were in the past does not appear to be in the cards, “it is important, in light of the complex challenges the region is facing, that Turkey and Israel have open communication channels between them.”

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