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Netanyahu and Erdogan: The odd couple

Alliances break apart as easily as they are formed, but enemies do deals

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan make an odd couple, even when Israeli marines are not boarding ships in international waters and killing Turkish citizens. Since the Mavi Marmara five years ago, these two men have spent their time eyeing each other from afar, much like Napoleon and Kutuzov did before a village called Borodino.

Erdogan has likened Israel’s actions against the Palestinians to those of Hitler and when he blasted Netanyahu for “daring to attend” the rally in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Israeli accused the Turk of being “an anti-Semitic bully”.

The surprise, then, is to learn that talks between Israel and Turkey on normalising relations are going well.

Turkish officials are finding their Israeli counterparts open to discussion on the remaining demands of the Mavi Marmara affair - relieving the siege of Gaza by using Turkey as a conduit for food and other supplies. This could even include electricity generation from a ship moored off the coast.

Erdogan said Turkey could send a ship to Gaza which would generate electricity and deliver construction materials. He said he had received an assurance that Israel would lift the siege if all aid to Gaza went through Turkey.

We have been here a few times before. On both fronts, the Mavi Marmara and lifting the Gaza siege, hopes have been raised only to be dashed by the next turn of events. The outlines of a deal on the Mavi Marmara were negotiated between officials soon after the incident, only to be vetoed by Netanyahu. In June 2013 Israel apologised. The same push/pull is evident today.

When the Turkish Trade Minister Bulent Tufenkci said more or less what his president was saying (“If agreement can be reached between the two countries, Israel will allow Turkish origin products and aid material through Turkey into the Gaza Strip”) Netanyahu denied Israel would lift the maritime blockade.

He told a Likud Party meeting: “They [Turkey] argued against the blockade on Gaza and of course we don’t intend to change our naval blockade policy... even though Israel is the country that transfers the [goods for the] existence and rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, we cannot give up on our security.”

A siege that has lasted for eight years, and formed the backbone of a strategy shared by Israel, Mahmoud Abbas and the Quartet, is not going to be lifted easily. The talks are hostage to the next event that takes place. Haaretz’s Amos Harel reports Shin Bet’s claims to have foiled three attempts by Hamas to prepare large scale attacks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Shin Bet says the tunnel building under the Gaza border is in full swing again. So Harel concludes: “The basic components of the situation in the south – the continued tunnel digging, the lack of an effective barrier on the border and the tight siege on Gaza – leave open the risk of another round of fighting.”

The other major doubt is the personality of Netanyahu himself. He has established something of a track record as an unreliable negotiator reneging on positions he expressed in private and dumping his interlocutors in a trice. It has often been said that Netanyahu prefers the process of negotiation to its outcome. This time however there is little to be gained from the process. Only the result will help.

The Erdogan talks come hard on the heels of the meetings between the former Quartet envoy Tony Blair and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Doha last year, which I first revealed. The talks, which included offering Meshaal a visit to London in June last year, failed because Israel showed no interest and because Egypt vetoed it. Hamas, too, were fundamentally suspicious of Blair's motives.

Erdogan does not carry Blair’s baggage. Nor could he be associated with the Emiratis, or the Gaza-born Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, as Blair was. Erdogan remains an implacable foe of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Turkey once hosted senior Hamas officials, including one of the founders of the Qassam brigades, Salah Al-Arouri, although he has since left. Erdogan and Meshaal have been in frequent contact.

So, if indeed Netanyahu is taking these talks seriously, the real question is why? What does Israel gain from detente with Turkey? Why is it interested after three wars in lifting the siege of an “enemy entity” when according to Shin Bet, Israel’s security is compromised as never before?

It's about gas

The need to export the gas that Israel is now sitting on from its own fields provides one incentive. The announcement last year of substantial gas finds in Egyptian territorial waters has put pressure on a series of gas export deals that Israel originally signed with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The Egyptian gas field that the Italian multinational Eni identified - an 849-billion cubic meter field - is considerably bigger than Israel’s 621 billion cubic meter field at Leviathan. If Egypt turns out not to need Israel’s gas, the only other markets for it are the Far East and Europe.

Israel can only export its gas to the Far East if it is liquefied, and as these facilities are slow and expensive to build, it has to rely on plants in Egypt and contracts with Spanish Union Fenosa’s plant in Damietta, and Shell’s LNG plant in Idku.

As the Egyptian route becomes more complex in practice than it appears in theory, a pipeline to Turkey and the European market is becoming more attractive - although it would need the solution to another crisis, between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, to solve it.

Turkey, on the other hand, is interested in anything which would lessen its dependency on Russian natural gas, after it shot down a Russian fighter over Turkish airspace on the Syrian border. The calculation that both Turkish and Russian analysts make is that Erdogan’s relationship with Putin is permanently damaged as a result.

Gaza itself provides the second incentive. The idea that it is in Israel’s security interests to maintain and build on the ceasefire with Hamas predates the last war in Gaza. Mossad’s former chief Efraim Halevy called Hamas Israel’s “frenemy”: "Hamas, for example, is in a state of war with Israel, while its battle against other organisations in the Gaza Strip, which reject its authority, serves Israel's security needs."

That line of reasoning has since been given a substantial boost. Whatever it is called - the Third Intifada, the Intifada of the Knives, The Lone Wolf Rebellion - the uprising which has accounted for the lives of 153 Palestinians, 20 Israelis, and American and an Eritrean exists now as a political fact.

Much as Shin Bet may want to see the hand of Hamas in staging bigger attacks, the stabbings and car rammings have been leaderless and random. Israel’s and the PA’s security systems are geared to detect planned and targeted attacks. They have no idea what to do about the desperate and generally suicidal acts of individuals with no criminal record or political affiliation. Thus far, they have responded with measures of collective punishment which only stoke the fires of revolt and make the occupation that much harder to bear.  

This uprising was fuelled not only by the sight of a Palestinian state disappearing before the eyes of a new generation of Palestinians. It was also produced by a vacuum of Palestinian leadership, particularly in East Jerusalem.

Israel's fear of IS

Enter the Islamic State group. Or at least a statement by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which has been taken seriously. He warned Israel in an audio tape: “We are getting closer to you day by day. Do not think that we have forgotten about you.”

“Palestine will not be your land or your home. It will be a graveyard for you. Allah has gathered you in Palestine so that the Muslims may kill you.” ISIS is indeed just over the border in Syria and in Sinai, after a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt was overthrown, and Hamas has been contained in Gaza.

Most analysts are fiercely resistant to seeing the cause and effect in all of this. They don't want to acknowledge that the crushing of an elected Islamist government in Egypt generated the oxygen  which Takfiri Islam needs to breathe. Israel shares the view of the Russian, Egyptian, French and British governments that Islamism is an evil in all its forms and that political Islamists and jihadis work in tandem to establish the same theocratic ends.

By ideology, custom and practice, Israel stands four-square against a deal with Hamas, which it brands as beyond the pale of rational discourse. Developing Israel's covert links with the Emiratis who share this vision is the current game in town. But just suppose al-Baghdadi’s call to arms is heeded by some in Palestine. This is not impossible in the current climate as IS is already close at hand on the Syrian border and in the Sinai.

All bets are off if Israel had to choose which enemy it preferred to face. With whom would it rather negotiate a prisoner exchange in Gaza? Hamas or IS? A rational Islamic Resistance Movement or an irrational one?  Just imagine if Israel had its way in Gaza and Hamas collapsed as the de facto government. To whose advantage would this be? Fatah's or Dahlan's? A liberal or secular nationalist regime would be unlikely to dominate. At least some groups supporting Hamas would move over to IS.

There are two clear signs that the talks between Turkey and Israel are progressing. The first was a curious incident which took place in the hills of Iraqi Kurdistan. Russia wanted to put troops on the ground, from which it could launch operations in Mosul and asked the permission of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani whose group controls the area. Talabani consulted his allies. The US had no objections, but curiously Israel had. Israel wanted to show its concern that the Russian intervention in Syria was bolstering Iran’s influence in this theatre of war. It also wanted to show Turkey it had influence in the area.

The second sign are the howls of outrage from Egypt which under Sisi has done so much to enforce the siege by blowing up half of the border town of Rafah and flooding the tunnels. In representations to the Israeli ambassador in Cairo and by the Egyptian charge d’affaires at its embassy in Tel Aviv, Egypt opposes any Israeli concessions to Turkey over the Gaza Strip. Obviously they would lose the last card they had to play - the Palestinian one.

Whatever happens, the Israeli talks with Turkey are signs the region is in a permanent state of flux. Alliances break apart as easily as they are formed. Enemies do deals. What was around one day will not necessarily last until the next. Maybe Netanyahu is casting around for another solution.

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A billboard on a main street by the Ankara municipality to thank Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reads:“ We are grateful to you ” in Ankara, on 25 March, 2013, three days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologised to Turkey over the death of nine Turkish citizens on board a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 (AFP).

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