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Signs of a Thaw in the Eastern Med 25 février 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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The Wall Street Journal Europe (USA) Febraury 25, 2014, p. 13

By Sohrab Ahmari *

A spate of new developments suggests that Turkey and Israel are repairing their strained ties. But how far will this rapprochement go? And what does Ankara’s Muslim Brotherhood-linked government seek?

Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, Western observers have spoken of Turkey-in-Asia and Turkey-in-Europe. Today these labels are geographically meaningless, and yet there are still two Turkeys: One is the free-market Turkey, a model Muslim democracy, NATO member and EU aspirant with a vibrant economy and civil society; the other is the more Asiatic Turkey ruled by an increasingly authoritarian, Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

For Turkey’s neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean, this duality can prove challenging. Not least for Israel, whose ties with Ankara, an erstwhile regional ally, reached a nadir in summer 2010. That’s when a flotilla of Turkish anti-Israel activists attempted to break Jerusalem’s naval blockade of Gaza.

Confronted by knife-wielding thugs aboard the flotilla’s flagship, the Mavi Marmara, Israeli troops opened fire, killing nine activists. Mr. Erdogan in response downgraded relations, canceled joint military exercises and unleashed fiery rhetoric against the Jewish state.

Now relations appear to be reversing course. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned an apology to Mr. Erdogan in March. This was followed in December by a trip to Istanbul by Israel’s environmental protection minister, the first cabinet-level Israeli official to visit Turkey since the Mavi Marmara affair. And the regional press earlier this month disclosed plans for a pipeline to deliver natural gas from Israel’s newly discovered Leviathan field to consumers in Turkey and beyond.

The U.S. is hopeful. « There is a solid deal all ready to be closed, any day now, for ‘normalization,' » a senior U.S. diplomatic official tells me via email. « That is to say, returning to ‘normal’ relations in which there can be acknowledged, unremarkable, routine, high-level dialogue at the everyday level of ambassadors (which is to say, ministers). And normal everyday relations such as military-to-military contacts, exercises, etc., without any drama, fanfare, or concerns for political reactions. »

Such normalization, he added, « is hugely important for both countries, and for their mutual friends, like us. »

There’s little doubt that Turkey’s recent economic troubles — its GDP grew 4.3% last year, according to the World Bank, compared with 9% in 2010 and 2011 — spurred some of the recent cooperation with Israel, particularly in the energy industry. Delek and Noble Energy — the Israeli and American companies, respectively, that hold a majority stake in Leviathan — have opened talks with a Turkish conglomerate about construction of a pipeline connecting the Mediterranean gas field to the Turkish coast.

The pipeline « could provide between 8 to 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year costing $7 to $9 per million BTU, » according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. « This makes the project of major strategic interest to Turkey which has a great need of inexpensive natural gas. »

Turkey’s shifting relationship with its major energy suppliers, Iran and Russia, is another factor behind the opening to Israel, according to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Turkey’s policy on Syria — seeking regime change in Damascus — has alienated Ankara from Tehran and Moscow, which back the Assad regime. « Turkey wants to diversify, » Mr. Cagaptay says.

The recent overtures are also driven by Mr. Erdogan’s desire to register a public diplomatic victory over Israel at home while scoring points in Washington. « I would link the current round of negotiations perhaps to the Turkish domestic need to present some achievements before the local elections scheduled in March, » says Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli army intelligence who now directs Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. Gen. Yadlin warns that Mr. Erdogan may not be able to present « a deal that is acceptable to Israel as a complete triumph [at home]. »

Two key tests for the thaw’s depth and permanence will be Mr. Erdogan’s rhetoric toward Israel and his handling of the Gaza-blockade question, and if the past is any guide, he’ll have a hard time passing. In recent months he and his supporters have blamed the Jewish state for everything from protests in Istanbul, to recent corruption allegations against the prime minister’s clique, to the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in Egypt. Anti-Israel conspiracism of this sort doesn’t bode well for long-term rapprochement.

Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan continues to conflate Ankara’s disagreements with Jerusalem over the naval blockade of Gaza, which Israel is unlikely to lift, with the land blockade, which Israel has already eased, in part to facilitate the construction of a Turkish hospital on the strip. And it isn’t hard to imagine Mr. Erdogan being cornered by domestic opponents, such as the rival Islamist Gulen movement, and responding by firing up the Gaza issue once more.

As the U.S. diplomatic official tells me: « No one should expect a love affair. »

* Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.


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