Five years after Israel’s formal request to open a representation office at NATO’s Brussels headquarters, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced that NATO has approved the Israeli request and will allow Israel to open the office. Israel is currently a partner in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue along with six other Middle Eastern and North African countries (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco).
Opening the NATO office has not been a mere formality. Israel’s request has been opposed by NATO member Turkey since it was first submitted in 2011, and as NATO decisions are adopted by a consensus of all 28 member nations, the Turkish stance blocked any possible movement forward on this issue in the last five years. Amid the noticeable thawing of relations between Turkey and Israel in recent months, and as part of a normalization agreement between the two countries yet to be signed, Turkey has removed its objection, thus paving the way for the NATO approval.
While the US, Canada, and Germany continuously pushed Turkey to agree to the move, it was a calculated Turkish decision to do so now, coming at a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is attempting to strengthen his country’s regional strategic position and enhance its economic opportunities, and a rapprochement with Israel seems to align with this agenda. Nevertheless, fixing the troubled Turkish-Israeli relationship remains a mighty task for senior negotiators on both sides.
In the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident (May 31, 2010), Turkey instructed its ambassador in Tel Aviv to return home and suspended all political, diplomatic, and security dialogues and contacts with Israeli government officials and the military. Erdoğan, then Prime Minister, set three conditions/demands for normalizing relations: an official Israeli apology, compensation for the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara incident, and the lifting of the naval blockade of Gaza. Similarly, Israel ordered back its ambassador from Ankara, and realizing that restoring ties with Turkey would likely take some time, focused on steps aimed at preventing a total collapse of the relationship, thus doing its part to ensure that the economic and trade relations remained afloat.
Nearly six years since the Mavi Marmara incident and after numerous rounds of negotiations between senior Turkish and Israeli officials, Israel has clearly met the first two conditions as Netanyahu formally apologized to Erdoğan in March 2013, and reportedly (on the second condition) the two countries have agreed on the amount of compensation Israel is to pay the families of the victims of the incident (approximately $22 million). The last stumbling block on the way to normalization remains the third Turkish demand – the lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israel has tied this issue to Turkey’s problematic cooperation with and support of Hamas and is demanding that Turkey prevent the continued activities of Hamas operative Saleh al-Arouri, who from Istanbul is coordinating terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in the West Bank, as well as Turkish facilitation of a release by Hamas of the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
During the past six years, normalizing ties with Israel was not always a priority for Turkish leaders due to foreign policy considerations or domestic political considerations. As the events of the Arab Spring unfolded, beginning in early 2011, Turkey hoped to assume a leadership role in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and having good relations with Israel did not serve that purpose. Additionally, during sensitive periods in the Turkish political cycle (e.g. presidential, parliamentary and municipal election cycles or the Gezi Park protests of 2013), restoring relations with Israel was viewed by the Turkish leadership as potentially harmful to the chances of the ruling AK Party to decisively win elections or effectively deal with domestic crises. For its part, Israel was mostly in a reactive mode vis-à-vis Turkey, at times trying to initiate contacts and at other times denouncing harsh Turkish anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic actions and statements.
Notwithstanding, several developments in recent months have led Turkey to the conclusion that perhaps now is the time to advance a rapprochement with Israel. The crisis in the Turkish-Russian relationship has left Turkey casting about for as many friends as it can get; Israeli natural gas is seen as the most promising replacement in the medium term for some of Turkey’s natural gas imports from Russia; and the impact of the war in Syria (including the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks) makes it imperative for Turkey to enhance its intelligence capabilities, with which Israel can certainly help. For Israel, finding an export destination for its natural gas is a priority and resuming a political and military dialogue with Turkey may contribute to a more comprehensive view of the challenges Israel faces in the region.
At present, negotiations between the two countries are at a sensitive stage, and may possibly be concluded in the coming weeks. The removal of its objection to Israel’s request to open an office at NATO Headquarters is a sign that Turkey is serious about normalization and an indication that the talks are heading in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go before Israel and Turkey finally get past their differences and resume normal diplomatic relations.