September 30, 2013 11:37 am

Ankara takes slow road to rapprochement with Israel

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a ship docks in Haifa©Alamy

New trade route: a ship docks in Haifa. Turkish trucks now frequently arrive at the Israeli port on ships and then head overland into the Middle East

Yosef Levi Safari, Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Ankara, was invited to attend a state reception in August at the Cankaya presidential palace.

This was the first invitation to an Israeli envoy since May 2010, when its forces stormed the ship Mavi Marmara in international waters as it was heading for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip. Israel killed nine people, causing the two countries to withdraw ambassadors.

So slow is the pace of political rapprochement between Turkey and Israel that some Israeli media organisations seized on his attendance – at what was a routine diplomatic gathering – as a news event.

Mr Safari’s invite came just days after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, accused Israel of masterminding the coup that toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

In response, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s rightwing ex-foreign minister, compared Mr Erdogan to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda chief. Relations between two of the Middle East’s pre-eminent economic and military powers were not meant to be so difficult. In March, US President Barack Obama, on a visit to Israel, sought to reconcile two of his nation’s strongest regional allies when he brokered a call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Erdogan, in which the former apologised for the incident, the first of three main Turkish preconditions for restoring ties. The two countries were also meant to agree on reparations, and Israel was to lift is blockade on Gaza, whose ruling Hamas movement is supported by Turkey.

But since then reconciliation talks have foundered, officials and analysts say, as Israeli officials bridle at what they see as hostile and anti-Jewish rhetoric by Mr Erdogan, and the Turkish prime minister copes with his own domestic political problems and growing isolation in the Middle East.

At home, this summer’s mass protests, which began in Istanbul, have preoccupied the Turkish leader. Abroad, Mr Morsi’s forced departure deprived Mr Erdogan of his strongest regional ally. By siding with anti-government rebels in Syria, he further strained relations with that country, Iran, and Iraq.

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Turkey specialist with the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says: “I think the main reason that the negotiations are stuck is the Gezi Park events, which have both made the Turkish side less prepared to advance in negotiations, as well as making the Israelis – and for sure the Americans – more hesitant in pressing the Turks.”

Israel has eased some of its restrictions on Gaza in areas such as the import of construction materials.

However, that became a moot point after Egypt’s army began to crack down on border tunnels linking Sinai to the Palestinian enclave, putting it under new economic pressure.

A planned trip by Mr Erdogan to Gaza in late August, meant to bolster his standing as a champion of the Islamist group, was hastily cancelled after Egypt’s coup d’état.

Yet, while Turkey and Israel’s political relations remain fragile, growing commercial ties suggest that companies and citizens are finding common economic interests. The joint trade agreement, signed in 1996, remained intact through their political estrangement; foreign trade, after dipping, bounced back.

According to the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel, Israeli exports to Turkey grew from $1bn in 2009 – the year before the flotilla incident – to $1.5bn now. Turkey’s exports to Israel rose over the same period, from $1.4bn to nearly $2bn.

Dan Catarivas, the MAI’s director of foreign trade, says: “Because there is such complementarity between the Israeli and the Turkish economies, the economic interests of the two sides probably overcame the bad political climate.”

Turkish importers are buying Israeli technology, semi-finished products and raw material, he says. Meanwhile, Turkey exports consumer goods that Israel buys because it does not make them.

Energy executives in both countries have been quietly studying the feasibility of an undersea gas pipeline that would pump some of Israel’s abundant offshore reserves to customers in Turkey. Proponents of the pipeline say that, if built, it could reshape the Middle East’s energy map.

However, Israel’s energy companies are studying other options for the gas too, including exports via pipeline to Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus, or to overseas markets in liquefied form.

The war in Syria, by disrupting the passage of Turkish goods trucks to Jordan and the Gulf, opened a new trade route through Israel. The trucks, which are brought by sea to Haifa with Turkish drivers on board, roll off the ships and head to the Jordanian border, then further afield. Israel’s government is torn between keeping a low profile around the new trade route, because of lingering political sensitivities, and championing it. More than 2,000 trucks have made the journey since November 2012.

“Trade has gone up since the Marmara incident,” says David Behrisch, managing partner of Tiran, an Israeli shipping company involved in the trans-Israel-Turkey shipping trade.

Analysts and officials say that, if the two countries bury the hatchet, they could step up their relationship in areas such as military co-operation.

However, this would have to await full political reconciliation, and that is not yet in sight. “Israel doesn’t need warm relations with Turkey, but both sides will benefit much from working relations,” says the INSS’s Ms Lindenstrauss.

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