Daniel Dombey & John Reed The Financial Times
The prospect of a reconciliation between Turkey and Israel has paved the way for closer co-operation on Syria and removed a big obstacle to collaboration over the development of strategic energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean, officials on both sides say.
Ties between the two former allies suddenly improved on Friday when Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, issued a US-brokered apology to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish opposite number, over a deadly flotilla attack in 2010.
Mr Netanyahu’s apology capped a week in which Turkey appeared to bolster its strategic position in an unstable Middle East. After talks with Mr Erdogan’s government, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK, declared a ceasefire in a long and bloody conflict that had become a geopolitical vulnerability for Ankara.
The rapprochement could also affect crisis-hit Cyprus, which has recently deepened its own ties with Israel, if improved Turkish-Israeli ties lead to greater energy co-operation that sidelines Nicosia.
“Fantastic week for Erdogan,” tweeted Javier Solana, the former EU policy chief, citing the Kurdish ceasefire and progress towards normal relations with Israel.
Both Israeli and Turkish officials caution that the normalisation of ties will be a gradual process, with one Turk suggesting it could be three to four months before the exchange of ambassadors. He added the two sides could meet this week to discuss the next step, deciding Israel’s compensation for the deaths in 2010 of nine Turkish activists aboard the ship Mavi Marmara, which had sought to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip.
An Israeli official told the Financial Times that the chaos in Syria was the biggest factor behind Mr Netanyahu’s decision to “swallow the pill” and mend fences with Ankara. Israel is worried the militant group Hizbollah or opposition forces linked to al-Qaeda could access chemical weapons.
“It means a concerted American action, when and if needed, will not be hindered by marginal background noise such as automatic Turkish rejection of anything that might be connected to Israel,” the official said.
The Israeli official said that it would now be easier for the two countries to consult and possibly share intelligence, although he added: “I can’t say all intelligence will be shared immediately and automatically”.
Mr Netanyahu said on his Facebook page on Saturday that his “central consideration” about the apology was “the fact that Syria is getting worse by the minute”.
The Turkish official said the instability in Syria was not the primary reason on Ankara’s part, arguing that Mr Erdogan had long been ready to accept an apology. But he added: “Now that we are in the process of normalisation, we are going to open channels of information more easily; of course it will help our intelligence officials get in touch with each other.”
The Turkish official also argued that the reconciliation also made a possible gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey a “much more viable” idea.
Noble Energy and Delek Energy, the main investors in Israel’s large offshore natural gasfields, have in recent weeks sounded out possible customers in energy-hungry Turkey but until now the countries’ rift appeared to preclude progress.
“The obstacle was not the private sector but the relations between the governments,” said the Turkish official. “I don’t think Turkey will come out against this now . . . We want to be an energy hub.”
Such contacts could also affect Cyprus by leaving the island with fewer options over where to export gas from its own smaller fields than if it were able to pool costs with Israel.
“It would leave Cyprus with two policy choices – wait much longer to export their gas because they need more volume to finance the infrastructure or think seriously about energy co-operation with Turkey,” said Fiona Mullen, at Sapienta Economics in Nicosia.
“This was unthinkable even 10 days ago, but things have changed.”
Matthew Bryza, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, added that, without Israel to provide economies of scale, “in the short term the Cypriots lose their ability to do a pipeline or an LNG option”, adding that in the longer run a Cypriot pipeline to Turkey would make most commercial sense.