Author: Ilgar VELIZADE
At the end of 2020, various statements about the likelihood of restoration of Turkish-Israeli relations hit the headlines of regional media. But these articles were often based on assumptions than facts, since the negotiations between the both states were held in a closed format. Nevertheless, the willingness of Ankara and Tel Aviv to bring their positions closer leads to the conclusion that the countries are very close to reaching an agreement. A number of experts believe that Baku has played a certain role in this process.
New regional reality as a condition for rapprochement
Turkey and Israel provided Azerbaijan with invaluable political support during the 44-day war, which helped Baku liberate its lands from Armenian invaders and restore its territorial integrity. But before that the Turkish-Israeli political dialogue had been practically suspended, despite sporadic and inertial interaction between the countries.
Contradictions between the states became public when the Israeli navy captured the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010, which was trying to break the blockade of Gaza. A few years later, both sides recalled their ambassadors and minimized all strategic contacts. Yet both countries had a number of issues of mutual interest such as the development of trade and economic contacts, strengthening relations with a number of regional partners, etc. despite the radical deterioration of relations.
Among the foreign policy priorities of Turkey and Israel are also their special relations with Baku. Thus, both states have been Azerbaijan's key partners in military-technical cooperation, which played an instrumental role in the provision of the Azerbaijani army with the state-of-art weapons. This has eventually brought the regional positions of Turkey and Israel closer and even contributed to the conjugation of interests.
Azerbaijan has actually contributed to the development of a platform for dialogue between Turkey and Israel, albeit indirectly. Some Israeli analytics did not even exclude that Israel could maintain a communication channel with Ankara through Baku.
Israeli press on Azerbaijan’s mediation
According to a number of resources, Turkey and Israel have already started negotiations on the normalization of relations by that time.
Recently, the analytical online publication Al-Monitor, which specializes in the region, reported that the head of the Turkish national intelligence agency has had secret negotiations with Israeli officials on the normalization of relations. This information quickly spread through other media.
According to the report the goal of negotiations was to restore the ties to the level of ambassadors. There have been no ambassadors in either country since May 2018, following Turkey's reaction to Israeli attacks on Gaza and Washington's decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The tensions grew when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Israel's plan to annex the West Bank, pledging to prevent this from happening.
However, the authors of the report argued that there was an opportunity to turn this black page in bilateral relations. And a real chance was not long in coming.
In October 2020, an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude hit the province of Izmir in western Turkey, causing destruction in the Greek city of Neon Karlovassi on the island of Samos, and in the Turkish city of Izmir. There were some casualties among the Turkish population though.
Among the countries that first responded to the tragedy was Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Beni Gantz said he had ordered the Israeli army to prepare to provide emergency assistance to Turkey. Almost immediately after Gantz’s statement, an Israeli Boeing 747 with humanitarian aid (seven mobile accommodation units, as well as warm clothes, blankets and mattresses) landed at the airport in Ankara. According to reports, the aid was provided on the instructions of the Israeli Defense Ministry in accordance with a request from the Turkish government.
Turkey gratefully accepted the aid and stated that they are always ready for the same reciprocal steps if necessary. This created a favourable background for the negotiations and indicated good prospects for establishing a dialogue between the countries.
Turkish-Israeli interest: politics vs economy
There are still contradictions between the political leaderships of both countries. Ankara continues to maintain a dialogue with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, refuses to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and condemns the annexation of the West Bank. But on the other hand, Ankara also recognizes the usefulness of a dialogue with Israel.
Commenting on reports about the dialogue between the two countries, Turkish President Erdogan said that Turkey has never interrupted ties with Israel at the level of intelligence services, and that these contacts are still kept alive. At the same time, Mr. Erdogan noted that "we have a number of problems with the leadership of this country." He acknowledged that Ankara would certainly like to improve relations with Israel, but cannot accept its position on Palestine.
However, the interests to cooperate in various fields have only transformed into a new quality over the past decade.
Interestingly, even after a sharp cooling of bilateral relations in 2010, trade and economic ties between the two countries are breaking new records. The trade turnover has almost quadrupled over the past decade. Bilateral trade reached $6.2 billion in 2018. Although it fell to $5.5 billion in 2019, Turkey still remains the sixth on Israel's list of trading partners.
Back in August 2019, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz stated that while there is clear hostility between Turkey and Israel, "trade continues to grow." Ferries loaded with Turkish goods go to Haifa, and then Turkish trucks with goods go to Jordan and further to the Gulf countries. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, it has been a key route for transporting Turkish goods to the markets of the Arab Gulf countries.
Experts believe that the Israeli and Turkish companies complement each other, which is a great potential in mutual trade. At this stage, this accounts for 2 to 3% of Israel's total trade, although the real potential is estimated at 10-15%. The two countries are close, their goods have the best prices, and the logistics allows one to quickly deliver quality goods to both countries.
Apparently, the pandemic did not affect Turkey's exports to Israel either. In the first nine months of 2020, exports reached $3.2 billion, which is almost the same as in the same period last year. As for Turkish exporters of food and beverages to Israel, their sales are also growing.
Azerbaijan’s victory and Turkish-Israeli reconciliation
The trilateral statement signed on November 10 between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia may indeed, albeit indirectly, be related to the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. After all, the agreement provides for the unblocking of important communication routes connecting Russia, Turkey and the countries of the Middle East. All these routes pass through Azerbaijan. The perspective project to restore the railway communication through the Meghri corridor opens the direct and shortest route from Russia to Turkey and further to the Middle East. This route can be used by both regional and external players, including Israel, which has recently increased its trade not only with Turkey, but also with Russia and Azerbaijan.
The Israeli media note that Azerbaijan has a positive experience of reconciliation between Turkey and Russia and could well reconcile Turkey and Israel. Moreover, Baku maintains a close confidential dialogue with both countries. Commenting on the telephone conversation between Azerbaijani and Israeli foreign ministers Jeyhun Bayramov and Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli media claims that Mr. Bayramov noted that Azerbaijan was interested in improving relations between its two allies. None of the officials commented on this conversation yet.
It is believed that the objective of the intensified contacts between Israel and Turkey might be the improvement of relations between the countries before the new US administration led by Joe Biden takes over. The White House will definitely welcome the strong ties between the two strong regional allies of the US, prompting new active involvement in the region. Another issue that Turkey may wish to resolve is the issue of gas exploration. Israel is closely associated with Greece and Cyprus in regional energy projects that Ankara wants to influence. However, it is unlikely that Israel will violate the agreements already concluded to please the Turkish side. Most likely, in order to strengthen its competitive position, Israel can simultaneously use the Turkish route for delivering its own gas to European markets. In this case, Israel must certainly use the infrastructure of the Southern Gas Corridor, where Azerbaijan maintains strong positions.