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Bringing Turkey and Israel closer together over Mediterranean interests

There is a rapprochement despite the last dialectic offensive of the Turkish President Erdogan against the Israeli Executive on account of the upcoming annexation of the West Bank territories
Combination of images of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

AFP/RONEN ZVULUN Y OZAN KOSE  -   Combination of images of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

In the last hours, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, issued a serious warning to Israel for announcing the takeover of the occupied territories of the West Bank, scheduled for July 1st by the new coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. The Turkish regime thus wanted to reinforce its traditional position of fraternal support for the Palestinians; but, at the same time, there are various sources that speak of shadowy contacts between Ottomans and Israelis due to interests centred on the Mediterranean Sea.  

Different Israeli media revealed that the Executive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exchanged confidential messages to improve relations between the two parties. Several analysts also confirmed that the Turkish leader and the Israeli Prime Minister have put aside the differences between them after the formation of the new Hebrew government.  

El presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan
PHOTO/Turkish Presidency via AP - The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Israel Radio, quoting an informed source, said Tel Aviv "recently transmitted messages to Ankara suggesting that it should use the formation of the new government in Israel to improve relations between the two countries"; something that was also echoed by Al-Ain News.  

The news source added that the Turkish state was now awaiting the Hebrew government's intention to annex the settlements in the West Bank. Here, Erdogan showed himself to be a great advocate for the interests of Palestine by pointing out that "No one can take Palestine's lands" and that "we will not allow the Palestinian lands to be offered to anyone else".

Vista general del asentamiento judío de Maale Michmash en Cisjordania
AP/ODED BALITY - Overview of the Jewish settlement of Maale Michmash in the West Bank

Shadow communications between the two sides have been silenced by the Eurasian nation; despite numerous meetings between the two sides, according to various sources. In this sense, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs published on social networks that "we are proud of our diplomatic relations with Turkey" and "hope our ties grow even stronger in the future".

As early as 2016, Turkey and Israel announced that they had reached an agreement to normalize ties, but the Cyprus issue and Turkey's strong reaction to the United States' decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem prevented calm waters.  

El primer ministro de Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, asiste a la primera reunión de trabajo del gabinete del nuevo Gobierno en el Parlamento israelí
PHOTO/REUTERS - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the first working meeting of the new government's cabinet in the Israeli Parliament

Recently, however, there have been positive signs of rapprochement. Israel's decision not to sign a declaration by France, Greece, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt condemning Turkey's actions in the eastern Mediterranean raised hopes. Israel's statements on social networks praising its diplomatic relations with Turkey further fuelled optimism. Turkish analysts saw the moves as a sign of the willingness of both countries to cooperate on issues such as the energy sector in the eastern Mediterranean.  

Erdogan could be taking advantage of this apparently contradictory strategy towards Israel consisting, on the one hand, of rapprochement and, on the other, of diplomatic attacks in order to get closer to his expansionist and economic objectives in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  

Turkey has been waging a belligerent campaign for months to gain positions through active participation in the wars in Syria and Libya. It entered the Arab country from the north via the Turkish-Syrian border to harass the Kurds, using the excuse that the Kurds are carrying out terrorist attacks in the south of Turkish territory; a position that confronts him with the regime of Bachar al-Asad, associated with Vladimir Putin's Russia, who seek to end the insurgent stronghold of Idlib under the pretext of unifying the country and ending the jihadist hotspots of terrorism in the area (here Turkey is accused of supporting members of former branches of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda who act as mercenaries in their service). On the other hand, in the North African nation, Turkish forces are allied with the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in fighting against the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Marshal Jalifa Haftar, who is trying to finish with the last resistant bastion of the GNA in Tripoli, a GNA recognized by the United Nations (UN) since 2016. 

Una mujer participa en una protesta contra el primer ministro de Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, que aparece en el cartel de la izquierda, mientras que el presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aparece en el otro cartel, en Tel Aviv, Israel, el domingo 19 de abril de 2020
AP/ODED BALITY - A woman takes part in a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen on the poster left while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on the other poster, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 19, 2020

President Erdogan signed an agreement with Prime Minister Sarraj to offer his military and logistical support (including Syrian pro-Turkish mercenaries from Syria), which included a pact for the distribution of areas of economic interest in Mediterranean waters for gas exploration, something that clashed with Greece's interests. The Greek country ended up denouncing Turkey internationally when it understood that these economic zones were invading its own platform and maritime border around the Greek islands.  

On the other hand, it should be noted that Turkey is also the first destination for Israeli tourists, as they travel to Asia through Turkish territory using Israeli airlines. Data also confirm the escalation of trade between Turkey and Israel in recent years. On Sunday, cargo flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul resumed after a 10-year hiatus with the arrival at the airport of the Turkish capital of an El Al aircraft that went to pick up humanitarian aid and health equipment essential to the U.S. fight against the coronavirus pandemic.  

Llegada del primer avión de El Al a Turquía en una década
PHOTO/TWITTER - Arrival of the first El Al plane to Turkey in a decade

In addition, Turkish Airlines has already announced the return of its flights between Turkish airfields and Israel's Ben Gurion Airport after it was suspended due to the COVID-19 disease health crisis. Ottoman airlines operate more than ten aircraft daily between Turkish cities and Israel's main airport hub.  

An official Hebrew source welcomed "the renewal of cargo plane traffic between Israeli and Turkish territories to deal with the coronavirus pandemic after a lapse of 10 years. It also revealed contacts for Turkey and Israel to sign an agreement to demarcate the maritime borders between the two countries, according to Al Ain News.  

This came after Turkey had also offered Israel passage of an Israeli gas export pipeline to Europe through Turkish territory, although Ankara protested, for its part, an agreement between Israel, Cyprus and Greece regarding passage of an underwater gas export pipeline through these countries.  

In this scenario, Turkish-Israeli cooperation, for example, would serve its own interests. Following the discovery of gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus in 2019, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed an agreement to build a gas pipeline, known as EastMed, to transport natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe via Greece, passing over Turkey. The project is facing difficulties in its viability due to the high cost and falling prices of energy. In view of this, a gas pipeline through Turkey is the best option. However, an Israeli diplomatic source said that Erdogan's aggressive anti-Israel rhetoric and Turkey's support for the jihadist grouping Hamas in Palestine continue to be impediments to normalization efforts, according to Israel News. 

El primer ministro de Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu (D), el presidente de Chipre, Nicos Anastasiades (I), y el primer ministro de Grecia, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, se dan la mano en la 7ª cumbre trilateral Israel-Grecia-Chipre durante la cual se ha firmado el acuerdo del gasoducto EastMed
PHOTO/AFP - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis shake hands at the 7th trilateral Israel-Greece-Cyprus summit during whichthe agreement for the EastMed pipeline project was signed

Nevertheless, the efforts for mutual understanding seem clear. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already announced that Turkey "needs Israel" in the Middle East and vice versa; the 'sultan' called for further normalisation of relations between the two countries which have been strained since 2010. Turkey has always been considered a key ally of Israel in the region before the relationship between the two countries deteriorated due to an attack by Israeli special forces on a group of Turkish ships carrying aid to Gaza in 2010. The Turkish president sent a clear message through a statement to the national media: "Israel needs a country like Turkey in this region. We, too, should admit that we need a country like Israel. This is a regional fact". Erdogan added that if both Israel and Turkey implement necessary measures based on mutual sincerity, "normalization will naturally ensue."

Turkey seeks to improve its relations with Israel, especially after straining its relations with many neighbouring countries. Israeli officials announced in mid-December that Israel and Turkey had reached a series of "understandings" to normalise relations after secret negotiations in Switzerland. A Turkish official had earlier announced that there had been "progress" towards a "framework agreement" between the two countries, while stressing that no agreement had yet been signed.