A Gas-Powered Rapprochement Between Turkey and Israel

After five years of discord, Ankara and Jerusalem are ready to mend ties, driven in no small part by Turkey’s desire to get access to Israeli natural gas.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

Turkey’s quest for new sources of energy to escape Russia’s clutches may have helped power the latest push for reconciliation with Israel, five years after the two countries acrimoniously split.

But a full restoration of ties between Ankara and Jerusalem, which has proven elusive before, requires further concessions on thorny issues like the future of Gaza, and concrete energy ties between the two nations are likely years away at best.

Israel and Turkey said on Thursday that secret diplomatic talks in Switzerland had paved the way for the long-awaited reconciliation. Both sides mapped out steps that will need to be taken to restore ties that were broken when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish vessel bringing relief supplies to Gaza in 2010.

According to Israeli media reports, Israel will pay Turkey compensation for that raid. Turkey, in turn, has agreed to crack down on Hamas terrorists operating from Istanbul. The two sides then need to reach an agreement about Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has torpedoed past efforts at rapprochement. Once ties are restored, the two countries said they planned to “explore” cooperation on natural gas, with Israel exporting some of its offshore bounty to Turkey.

“I think the reconciliation was a long time in the making, and security cooperation between the two sides had already deepened over the last year,” said Brenda Shaffer, a Georgetown University expert on eastern Mediterranean nations. She said the detente is “about politics and security, not gas” — although Turkey is also happy to quench its energy needs from sources other than Russia, given Ankara’s ratcheting tensions with Moscow over the last month.

“Ankara has an interest now in showing the Russians it has other options to get natural gas,” Shaffer said.

Indeed, while both sides had come close to making amends before, especially in 2013 and 2014, leaders in both countries recently had signaled a possible thaw. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers last week his government had been in talks with Turkish officials regarding exports of natural gas. Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that a restoration of ties between the two embittered countries would be good for “the entire region.”

The deteriorating situation in Syria, and especially Russia’s sudden leap into the ongoing civil war there, appears to have landed like a cannonball in the middle of the diplomatic dance between Turkey and Israel. Both sides are concerned about security threats boiling out of a disintegrating Syria, especially the Islamic State. And with Russia throwing its military might behind Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and behind groups hostile to Turkey and Israel, the two countries saw grounds for common cause.

“Both countries see Russia’s presence and Russian-backed groups in Syria as a threat,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The final catalyst seems to be Turkey’s newfound need to find an energy supplier other than Russia, from whom it imports more than half of its natural gas. In October, after the Russian military jumped into Syria, Turkey warned it could harm ties between Ankara and Moscow. After Turkey shot down a Russian jet that invaded its airspace in late November, relations took a nosedive. Russia slapped economic sanctions on Turkey, cancelled a high-profile natural-gas pipeline, and threatened further reprisals.

Turkey, fearing that Russia could use its control over energy exports as a geopolitical bludgeon, quickly started scouring the region for other sources of gas. Israel made a huge discovery of gas off its coast years ago, but has been struggling to figure out just who to sell it to.

“I think the tension between Russia and Turkey is what makes Israeli gas even more desirable from the Turkish side,” Cagaptay said. “If Russia decides to put Erdogan in a difficult situation, they could limit the sale of Russian gas.”

That doesn’t mean that Israeli gas will be fueling Turkish power plants anytime soon, even if the two sides manage to normalize relations. For starters, the development of Israel’s offshore gas fields has been held up for the past year due to domestic issues. Even preliminary deals that Israel appeared to have reached with friendly neighbors have gone south in recent months. Plans to export Israeli gas to Egypt and Jordan — the two Arab states with which Israel has a peace accord — have both foundered on domestic political opposition there.

What’s more, planning, financing, and building a natural-gas pipeline can take decades, even when there are few political or diplomatic complications, let alone the daunting technical challenges of laying pipe on the deep Mediterranean seabed. For example, Azerbaijan made a huge gas find in 1999, but took 14 years to secure a final decision on an export pipeline through Turkey, and gas won’t start flowing until 2018, Shaffer noted.

“While this reconciliation will give impetus to a lot of ‘energy diplomacy’ between Turkey and Israel, and that is a good thing to help smooth relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, it will not bring in the short term a concrete deal on natural gas supply,” she said.

There are also domestic political complications, especially in Israel, where both the left and right jeered the rapprochement. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said reconciliation could have happened earlier, but Netanyahu dragged his feet. Conservative Avigdor Liberman, a former foreign minister under Netanyahu, slammed the accord as a sellout to a “radical Islamist regime.”

All those hurdles to actual energy trade — diplomatic, domestic, commercial, and technical — are real. But Russia’s unbridled fury at Turkey — Moscow has decried Turkey’s “stab in the back,” has accused Erdogan of being in bed with the Islamic State, and has taken potshots at a Turkish fishing boat — could nevertheless end up steamrolling those challenges and paving the way to turn Israeli gas exports from dream to reality.

In Israel, Netanyahu last week pointed to the diplomatic dividends of energy trade to justify overriding Israeli technocrats and pushing for the controversial development of Israeli gas fields. He said that exporting energy to neighbors was crucial to safeguard Israel’s future security. Turkey, for its part, sees itself acutely vulnerable to any sudden interruption of Russian gas supplies.

“Earlier, diversifying energy supplies was a long-term need that Turkey had. With the crisis with Russia, this has become a pressing need,” Cagaptay said.

“A pipeline would be a huge deal, meaning the next time the Turkish-Israeli relationship faces a political shock like in 2010, that pipeline would keep them together, given its political, economic, and commercial ramifications,” he said.

Photo credit: GIUSEPPE MILO/Flickr 

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP