Israel and Turkey have just agreed to renew full diplomatic ties. Israel has been seeking to restore relations since the Mavi Marmara episode in May 2010, when Israeli naval commandos boarded a Turkish ship intending to break the maritime blockade of Gaza and killed 10 Turkish citizens after passengers opened fire and fought the Israeli forces. However, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected several overtures, until recently. Just this week Erdogan contended that rapprochement is crucial for the region. Further, to signal Anakara’s desire for good relations with the Jewish state, Turkey’s Jewish community lit a menorah during the first public celebration of Hanukkah in the history of the Turkish republic. And today Ankara and Jerusalem cut a deal.
The two countries will return their ambassadors. Israel will pay compensation to the families of the Gaza flotilla victims. Israel will sell gas to Turkey, an arrangement perhaps not possible before Thursday. An internal Israeli dispute had long tied up the natural gas sector, but earlier Thursday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a clause that cleared the way for the country’s nascent energy industry to go forward. Turkey is kicking out Hamas leader Saleh Arouri. The charges Turkey brought against IDF soldiers for the Mavi Marmara will be dropped. And Israel will sell gas to Turkey, which was accustomed to getting a large percentage of its energy needs met by Russia until the recent flare-ups between the two. Indeed, it is perhaps the fact this nuclear-armed power has now positioned itself on Erdogan’s border that focused his attention. Given the problems between Ankara and Moscow—the former downed a Russian jet two weeks ago, the latter opened fire on a Turkish ship earlier this week—and the possibility of a real shooting war, the prideful Erdogan can no longer afford to stiff-arm Israel.
Even before the Mavi Marmara incident, the two countries had an uneasy relationship. At Davos in 2009, Erdogan, who was then the Prime Minister, shouted insults at Israeli president Shimon Peres. It was how Erdogan distinguished himself from past Turkish leaders who enjoyed a strategic alliance with Jerusalem. Erdogan opted instead for warm relations with Israel’s adversaries, like Hamas. Hosting Arouri—in charge of the cell responsible for the kidnapping of the three students that started the 2014 war in Gaza—helped prove his anti-Zionist credentials to the rest of the Muslim Middle East, which he was eager to court as part of Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. And yet, as Erdogan soon discovered, in the Middle East one always has problems with the neighbors.
It turned out that Erdogan’s biggest problem was across the border in Syria. There was a time when Erodgan considered Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a friend, but soon after the Damascus regime started firing on peaceful protestors in March 2011, Erdogan became the most vocal of Assad’s opponents and demanded he step down. When the Obama White House proved reluctant to make good on its own promises to topple Assad, Erdogan took matters into his own hands and started supporting various anti-Assad rebel groups. If the White House frowned on some of the Salafist groups Erdogan was believed to be helping, the Turkish leader saw that he had little choice. After all, before the refugee crisis hit the shores of Europe, Syrians poured across the Turkish border—as well as the Lebanese and Jordanian frontiers—to escape Assad’s depredations.
It is Erdogan alone who has the kept the war against Assad a live issue—and that’s precisely why the White House wants him to close the border with Syria. There probably are ISIS fighters crossing into Turkey, as the Obama administration claims, but the White House’s chief goal is to end Erdogan’s war against Assad. It was only a matter of time then that the Syrian conflict would bring Ankara and Jerusalem back into alignment since these two powers are actually fighting Assad and his allies.
Sure, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Israel has no preference in the Syrian conflict between Assad and the rebels, but that’s simply to avoid taking a public position against Assad’s Russian patron. Right now Jerusalem has a very tentative, amorphous relationship with Vladimir Putin in Syria. There are mechanisms for “deconfliction”—i.e., not shooting each other’s planes down or firing on each other’s troops—but the reality is that Israel and Russia are on different sides. Bibi is not sitting on the fence—he is targeting Iranian arms convoys destined for Hezbollah and bombing weapons depots throughout Syria.
In other words, even as the renewal of diplomatic relations resolves one of Israel’s problems, it raised another, very important, question: How will Russia react? Putin is part of the Iranian axis, protecting Assad. Israel, clearly, is opposed to Iran, so how will rapprochement with a state not only opposed to Assad but a hair-trigger away from conflict with Russia, affect Israel’s fragile balance with Putin? Of course, it would all be a lot less dangerous if the United States were still managing the regional order. But Obama saw a nuclear deal with Iran as the ticket out. The problem is, there are still American allies all throughout the Middle East, like Israel and (NATO member) Turkey who must now find a way to manage their own interests, whether or not America approves.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).