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Turkey-Israel Rapprochement Brings Regional Benefits, Complications

A billboard in Ankara, the Turkish capital, shows Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, and reads: "We are grateful to you," a reference to Netanyahu's apology.
As U.S. President Barack Obama prepared to board his flight from Israel last week, his trip to the region was being criticized for its lack of political breakthroughs.

That is, until the last minute, when Obama invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a trailer parked on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

What happened next is widely seen as the diplomatic coup Obama sought when he arrived for his first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and officially apologized for a 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists.

The call was the first step in repairing a broken relationship with Turkey, which for years was Israel's main Muslim partner. The two countries are the region's largest military powers and had enjoyed significant military cooperation before the flotilla incident.

"It was just a question of time before the Americans had to move and call in order in the backyard," says Avrum Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset who is now an analyst with the Israeli think tank Molad. "If you keep in mind that there are so many other issues around -- and it is not just Syria, it is the future of Iraq, it is what to do with Iran, it is unrest in not-yet stable Egypt, etc. -- the United States needs to stabilize its own immediate partners. So, therefore, the wish of the Americans became the command of both us and the Turks."

Talk now turns to the impact the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey can have in a region that is still finding its way following the Arab Spring.

Benefits To Reap

Yossi Mekelberg, a Middle East expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank, says both Israel and Turkey stand to reap diplomatic, political, military, and economic benefits.

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference following talks in Jerusalem on March 20.
U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference following talks in Jerusalem on March 20.
At the top of their new bilateral agenda, Mekelberg says, is the ongoing civil war in Syria.

"The disintegration of Syria -- the risk of chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands -- is of concern for both Israel and Turkey," Mekelberg says. "As a result of that, they need to collaborate on the intelligence level and even the political level if Syria disintegrates, to make sure these weapons are not disseminated to all sorts of nonstate actors, and that later we will find them used in all sorts of attacks."

Turkish analyst Mehmet Yegin of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization highlights renewed Turkish-Israeli security cooperation.

He says the resumption of such cooperation could pose a setback not only for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime but also for its main regional backer, Iran.

"Actually, Turkey is in a similar position with Israel on the Syrian issue," Yegin says. "But since they were not coordinating their policies, it was not so effective, actually. The Iranians' cooperation with Iraq to send weapons to Assad's regime was actually more effective than the other side's. And I think that's a huge message [that] I think will not be welcomed by Iran."

Yegin says Turkey, which has recently scored a series of regional diplomatic successes, stands poised to emerge as an important regional broker in relations with Gaza's ruling Hamas movement.

'Just A Question Of Time'

As far as Israel is concerned, says Burg, the rapprochement repairs an unwelcome hitch in the Jewish state's long-term strategy toward the other main non-Arab powers in the region.

"All during the history of the state of Israel, the strategy of Israel was to have good relations with one of them at least," Burg says. "So up until 1977 it was us and the Iranians. And from 1977 on it's us and the Turks. In the last couple of years it was neither this one nor that one, and this is almost impossible. So it was just a question of time before we resumed the Turkish strategy, and it happened in due time."

However, Burg cautions that the Turkish-Israeli thaw could complicate Israel's relations with a still-unstable Egypt, whose Islamist President Muhammad Morsi has been acting recently as a mediator between the Israelis and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip.

Now that the Turks are back in the picture, with Erdogan having announced his intention to visit Gaza next month, efforts by an Islamist-led Egypt to assert itself as a regional power could suffer.

"Whatever we give [Erdogan] about Gaza is something we don't give Egypt," Burg says. "For example, the territorial water, or the land siege, or the passages, or so many other things that we right now are negotiating in Cairo with Hamas with the mediation of the Egyptians. So all of a sudden, Israel says, 'Hmmm, we give it to the Turks so we don't give it to the Egyptians.'"

That means it is the Palestinians in Gaza -- whose poverty and isolation led to the rift between Turkey and Israel in the first place -- who stand to lose most from the renewed Israeli-Turkish relationship.