Ukraine conflict
Turkey and Israel eye co-operation in Central Asia

As Russia advances across the Ukraine, the geopolitical cards are being reshuffled in the Middle East. On the agenda is closer economic and security cooperation between Israel and the Turkic countries. James M. Dorsey reports

A recent dinner in Washington suggests that a forthcoming visit to Turkey by Israeli President Isaac Herzog could be about more than putting an end to strained relations between the two erstwhile allies. Engineered by an influential American Jewish leader, Malcolm Hoenlein, vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the dinner was attended by the Washington ambassadors of Israel, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – and hosted by the envoy of Azerbaijan.

It was designed to find a pathway to closer economic and security cooperation between Israel and the Turkic countries, which have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The significance of the dinner lies not only in the fact that it occurred in advance of Herzog's visit. The ambassadors met as the Ukraine crisis forced Turkey to choose between NATO and Russia.

Moreover, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Central Asian states attempted three months earlier to blow new life into their Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States.

A NATO member with close ties to Russia that has invested in a Russian anti-missile system, Turkey has backed Ukraine, tightened military co-operation with the embattled East European state, and condemned Russia's occupation of Crimea in 2014. Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Kyiv earlier this month, but saw his offer to mediate Ukraine's conflict with Russia rebuffed by Moscow.

Ankara keen to improve relations with Israel

The Turkish president has since said he would like to resume talks with Israel on transporting Israeli gas to Europe. Europe’s gas supply could be in jeopardy if the West sanctions Russia in response to a potential Russian military operation in Ukraine. The sanctions could halt Russian gas sales to Europe. What is more, sanctions could also affect TurkStream, a gas pipeline that bypasses Ukraine by running from Russia under the Black Sea to Turkey, from where gas is pumped to Europe.

Detained over espionage charges for allegedly taking photographs of President Tayyip Erdogan's residence during a trip to Istanbul, Mordi and Natali Oknin speak to the media in Israel on 18 November 2021, following their release (photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
The latest in a series of diplomatic spats: keen to resume talks with Israel on transporting Israeli gas to Europe, Turkey was relatively quick to resolve tensions surrounding the case of Israeli couple Mordi and Natali Oknin, detained in Istanbul on charges of alleged espionage. Immediately following their release, diplomatic channels long closed between the two countries re-opened, paving the way for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement

Turkish-Israeli gas cooperation would strengthen Erdogan’s bid to position Turkey as an alternative energy hub for Europe. Azerbaijan has said it was ready to supply Europe with emergency gas that would flow through Turkey should the Ukraine crisis disrupt Russian shipments.

It has been confirmed that Isaac Herzog will fly to Turkey on 9 March; in doing so he will be the first Israeli head of state to visit the country in 15 years. Herzog’s brother, Michael, attended the aforementioned dinner in Washington in his capacity as Israeli ambassador.

Relations between Israel and Turkey broke down after the killing in 2010 by Israeli commandos of 10 Turkish activists onboard a ship that was part of an aid flotilla attempting to breach the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza.

Last month, a phone call between Yair Lapid and Mevlut Cavusoglu was the first confirmed conversation between the two countries’ foreign ministers in 13 years. The arrest in November on espionage charges and the subsequent release of an Israeli tourist couple for taking pictures of Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace, one of the city’s major tourism attractions, prompted the call and paved the way for Israeli-Turkish rapprochement.

The palace on the shores of the Bosphorus served as the administrative headquarters of Ottoman sultans in the 19th century and was the place of death in 1938 of Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The couple's release also triggered the first phone call between President Erdogan and top Israeli leaders in nine years, with President Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett phoning the Turkish president separately to thank him.

Military jets perform a fly-by over Abu Dhabi in the Turkish colours of red and white to mark the official visit of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the United Arab Emirates (photo: DHA)
Healing the rift: the move to rein in regional rivalry rooted in differences on the role of political Islam, comes after Ankara launched a charm offensive last year at a time of economic turmoil in Turkey and as the UAE turns towards soft power politics. The UAE, the region's trade and tourism hub, has said it wants to manage long-running differences with Turkey and Iran as it doubles down on economic growth after the pandemic. "The UAE sees economic and developmental co-operation ... as a key tool in wisely managing various issues to rid our region of continuous escalation," Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, said in a Twitter post on Erdogan's visit

The release of the Israeli couple and Erdogan’s outreach served multiple purposes. The Turkish leader did not want the incident to scare off badly needed tourists at a time of severe economic crisis. The incident also provided him with an opportunity to break through to Israel and temper the United Arab Emirates' geopolitical advantage in maintaining close ties to the Jewish state.

From Erdogan’s perspective, the Ukraine crisis has only increased the utility of improved relations with Israel.

UAE looking to "prosperous new phase" of co-operation

On 14 February Erdogan paid a visit to the UAE as part of a regional balancing act in which various Middle Eastern states are trying to ensure that their differences and multiple regional conflicts do not spin out of control.

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed heralded the visit, Erdogan’s first in almost a decade, as the start of a "prosperous new phase" of cooperation with Turkey. The UAE is Turkey’s foremost trading partner in the Gulf.

Meanwhile, Sabah, a flagship pro-government Turkish daily, reported in recent days that Turkish intelligence had last autumn foiled an attempt to assassinate Turkish-Israeli businessman Yair Geller. Some analysts suspect that the timing of the disclosure was intended to counter Israeli calls on Turkey to halt its support for Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, as part of a rapprochement with Israel.

The paper said several suspects linked to Iran had been detained. Turkish officials suggested the assassination attempt was in retaliation for the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020 by Israeli agents.


Erdogan's geopolitical tightrope

For Recep Tayyip Erdogan, repairing relations with Israel and forging a potential partnership in the Caucasus and Central Asia means walking a tightrope.

Erdogan has to balance improving relations with countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – perceived by their critics as having abandoned the defence of Muslim causes, including the plight of the Palestinians – with projecting himself as the Muslim leader who cares about his co-religionists.

As a result, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, recently made a point of saying that "any step we take with Israel regarding our relations, any normalisation, will not be at the expense of the Palestinian cause, like some other countries."

At about the same time, Turkey charged 16 people arrested last fall on charges of being part of an Israeli spy network. Israeli intelligence sources have denied the existence of such a network.

"Ankara’s accusations of ‘espionage’ and apparent threats to raise the price for the detainees show that it was using hostage diplomacy involving innocent tourists. This is how Hamas, which is backed by Ankara’s ruling party, has also behaved… Normal regimes don’t detain innocent people," thundered Seth J. Frantzman, the right-wing Jerusalem Post’s Middle East correspondent, shortly after the arrests last autumn.

James M. Dorsey

© 2022

James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

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