By Dr. Spyros Plakoudas, Analyst KEDISA
The Consensus So Far
No sooner had the ink of the reconciliation treaty between Israel and Turkey dried than the rumours and theories about the genuine motives behind this pact started to spread like wildfire. Journalists, former state officials, academics and even businessmen try to figure out not why the two countries eventually normalised their traumatised relations but why now. After all, the reconciliation process started in 2013 with a reluctant apology of Netanyahu and, after several ups-and-downs, was concluded on 2016. But why now?
The various specialists on this issue have pointed to two primary incentives: Iran and energy. Turkey and Israel, for dissimilar reasons, want the fall of Assad and the break-up of the Shia Axis (i.e. Shia in Iraq – Assad/Alawites in Syria – Shia/Hezbollah in Lebanon). Similarly, both countries – intimate allies of the USA since the second half of the 20th century – view the rapprochement between the USA and Iran under president Obama with suspicion. Along with Saudi Arabia, these two allies form an unofficial alliance (the so-called “bloc of the alienated”) which consistently tries to block the reconciliation between Tehran and Washington. The second motive pertains to the energy/economy. In the second decade of the 21st century, colossal hydrocarbon reserves have been discovered just outside Israel and Egypt which will alter the status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean and directly affect the energy industry in Europe and the Middle East. Israel intends to export the natural gas and Turkey appears as the ideal candidate for the Israeli hydrocarbons. Turkey represents both a weighty market (a country of 78 million customers whose thirst for energy increases year by year) and hub (already 4 pipelines traverse the easternmost areas of the country) for Israel and, therefore, outweighs other potential clients (e.g. Egypt) or partners (e.g. Cyprus and Greece) in terms of its economic utility.
Notwithstanding their viability, these explanations do not answer one critical question: why did Israel decide now on the full normalization of its traumatized relations with Turkey? By May 2016, Turkey seemed more vulnerable than ever. Ankara had severed diplomatic relations with quite a few neighbours (Armenia, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Russia and Syria) and sustained problematic relations with quite a few others (Greece, Iraq, Iran, the EU and the USA); at the same time, Turkey witnessed a vicious insurgency by the PKK and a tidal wave of terror by the ISIS. Why did, then, Israel decide to extract Turkey from the quagmire of its failed neo-Ottoman visions in May 2016?
The True Reason: NATO
Netanyahu revealed the single most important incentive for the rapprochement with Turkey but the international politics specialists overlooked it: NATO. Israel stood out as the only country of the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue (a formal forum of politico-military co-operation between NATO and several Mediterranean countries) which could not co-operate with NATO owing to Turkey’s veto. However, the USA wanted to terminate every conflict within NATO’s southern flank before the NATO summit in June 2016 in Warsaw – the “most crucial summit in decades” according to NATO’s Secretary-General. As a matter of fact, the NATO member-states would discuss in Warsaw the future of the precarious relations between NATO and Russia and, therefore, the USA intended to ensure an uneventful summit. Tel Aviv can now co-operate with NATO and Turkey (the alliance’s member-state with the second largest military) and quarantine the Eastern Mediterranean from Russia and Iran. Despite the recent rapprochement with Tehran, Washington converges with Ankara and Tel Aviv on the need to contain Iran’s influence in the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria, Lebanon and Gaza Strip) and restrain Russia’s increasing regional clout (Syria, Egypt, Cyprus).
Although the two countries will not revert to the old military alliance, the reconciliation offers them a unique opportunity to remedy their strained ties with the USA. This marriage of convenience does not, however, inhibit Israel from pursuing its own agenda in the Middle East (e.g. support for an independent Kurdish state) which might conflict with Turkey’s own. NATO will at least make sure that any conflict between the two countries does not get out of hand as before.