AnalysisAs Turkey's foreign minister tours Ramallah, Jerusalem

FM’s visit shows Turkey eager to accelerate reconciliation, but Israel more cautious

Ankara’s energy minister had wanted to join FM Cavusoglu on his trip Tuesday, but Jerusalem is not looking to jump into a natural gas partnership

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusolgu is greeted in Israel by Gil Haskel, the Foreign Ministry's protocol chief, May 24, 2022 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusolgu is greeted in Israel by Gil Haskel, the Foreign Ministry's protocol chief, May 24, 2022 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Even before Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu touched down at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport Tuesday, his visit was being shaped by Israel’s skepticism and wariness about the pace of rapprochement with Ankara.

Ahead of the visit, reports had been widespread that Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez would join Cavusoglu to push the natural gas partnership that Ankara badly wants — especially since the US signaled it no longer supported Israel’s plans for a gas pipeline to Europe through Cyprus and Greece.

But by the time of Cavusoglu’s visit, any plans to bring Donmez along had disappeared from the agenda.

With Turkey being opaque about the steps it has taken to limit Hamas activity in its territory, Israel is not yet ready to restore full diplomatic ties, and it certainly isn’t eager to talk energy. (Of course, during his meeting with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid Wednesday, Cavsoglu could potentially clear up any disagreement.)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid his cards on the table during President Isaac Herzog’s visit in March, voicing his readiness to “cooperate (with Israel) in energy and energy security projects.”

Jerusalem, meanwhile, has other priorities.

“Israel isn’t interested in energy cooperation right now,” explained Gabriel Mitchell, director of external relations of the Mitvim Institute. “Our relations are not at a point where we can talk about energy cooperation in the form of a gas pipeline. You need to focus on all the other things that we need in order to get our relationship back to a point where one day we can maybe talk about energy.”

In this photo made from a video provided by the Turkish Energy Ministry on Aug. 12, 2020, Turkey’s research vessel Oruc Reis is sailing off the west of Antalya on the Mediterranean, Turkey. (Turkish Energy Ministry via AP, Pool)

Per Mitchell, the removal of Donmez from the visit was “an admission on the Turkish side that they were being over-aggressive — in particular Erdogan — and that they need to move at Israel’s pace in order to get this done.”

Ankara is hugely dependent on Russia for its energy imports, with 45 percent of its gas demand last year filled by Russian sources, and is eager to diversify supplies, with a close eye on Israel’s developing resources.

Israel first wants to discuss Turkey’s relationship with Hamas, the return of ambassadors, the thawing of suspended components of the bilateral relationship (such as parliamentary and academic exchanges), and the restoration of a strategic dialogue.

These processes will take time.

“Certainly Israel is not going to jump into an energy partnership with a country that it doesn’t have full diplomatic ties with,” Mitchell said. “It’s putting the cart before the horse.”

Once robust regional allies, Israel and Turkey saw their ties fray throughout Erdogan’s tenure, during which the Turkish leader has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Israel has been concerned by Erdogan’s warm relations with Hamas, the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip.

The countries reciprocally withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces boarded a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for the Palestinians that attempted to break an Israeli blockade. Though most of the participating vessels were boarded without incident, those onboard a Turkish ferry boat violently resisted the Israeli action, resulting in the deaths of 10 Turkish activists.

Footage taken from Mavi Marmara security cameras, showing the activists onboard as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Footage from the Mavi Marmara security cameras shows activists on board as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

Relations slowly improved but broke down again in 2018, after Turkey, angered by the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, once more recalled its envoy from Israel, prompting Israel to reciprocate.

A visit to Palestine

Though Israeli concerns shaped the energy component of the visit, Cavusoglu has still been able to craft a schedule that meets his interests.

After landing, Ankara’s top diplomat headed for Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki.

Visiting the Palestinians first, and making a trip to the Al-Aqsa Mosque without Israeli officials on Wednesday, allows Erdogan and Cavusoglu to sell the trip to their religious supporters as a visit to the PA, with discussions with Israeli leaders tacked onto its end.

“His emphasis is on the Palestinians first and foremost, and this is a very clear message for the Turkish constituency,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “It’s all for a domestic audience.”

The pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah outlet covered the visit with the headline “FM Cavusoglu heads to Palestine as part of groundbreaking visit.”

“It’s very clear why the Turkish side is emphasizing this,” said a senior
research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Erdogan is in the process of courting Western countries, including the US, France and Israel, but needs to maintain domestic support ahead of elections in 2023 by emphasizing that he is still the defender of the Palestinian cause.

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli president Isaac Herzog and Rabbi Marc Schneier, at a reception in Ankara, Turkey, on March 9, 2022. (Courtesy: Marc Schneier)

Since he made the decision to end the diplomatic crisis with Israel, Erdogan has been selling it to Turks as a way to help the Palestinians.

“It’s a delicate dance,” said Cohen. “They don’t want to create problems at home.”

In any event, Cavusoglu’s visit is not about to dominate news coverage in Turkey.

“There are many other items on the agenda,” said Lindenstrauss.

Tensions are rising again between Turkey and Greece — now a close Israeli ally — after Erdogan accused Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of lobbying a joint session of Congress against selling Ankara F-16 fighter planes.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, centre right, shakes hands with Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, centre, left, prior to their meeting on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 25, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

Also this week, Sweden and Finland are sending delegations to Ankara hoping to clear up differences with Turkey over its opposition to their applications to join NATO.

NATO member Turkey has long accused Nordic countries, in particular Sweden, which has a strong Turkish immigrant community, of harboring outlawed Kurdish militants as well as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher wanted over a failed 2016 coup.

Even with other pressing issues to deal with, Erdogan is determined to get Israel to agree to swap ambassadors. Cavusoglu’s visit is a clear testament to this desire.

During the last rapprochement in 2016, Turkey sent its tourism minister to Israel, while then-energy minister Yuval Stenitz made a first Israeli ministerial visit to Turkey in six years.

“The fact that it’s the foreign minister gives greater importance to the current rapprochement,” Lindenstrauss said.

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