ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Israel and Turkey on Thursday agreed to open discussions on building a gas pipeline to pump Israeli gas to Europe, as the Israeli energy minister made the first ministerial visit since a crisis in ties.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz met his Turkish counterpart Berat Albayrak in Istanbul, the highest level official meeting since the two countries normalized ties in June after a 2010 crisis triggered by Israel’s deadly storming of a Gaza-bound aid ship.
Until the 2010 crisis, NATO member Turkey had been Israel’s key ally in the Muslim world, and the process to normalize relations was strongly backed by the United States.
Hailing his visit as the start of economic benefits of normalization, Steinitz said they agreed to start examining the feasibility of building an undersea gas pipeline to pump Israeli gas to Turkish consumers and on to Europe.
“What we decided is to establish immediately a dialogue between our two governments… in order to examine the possibility and the feasibility of such a project,” he said.
He said that while Israel was also building regional energy cooperation links with Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece “the Turkish option is very important.”
He added that Israel “will also be glad to see Turkish companies involved in Israeli energy sector” including in the exploration of gas fields.
A fluent English speaker, Albayrak is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law and seen as one of the rising stars of the Turkish government.
The Turkish energy ministry said in a statement meanwhile that the two ministers had agreed “to establish dialogue on exporting natural gas.”
‘Sweetener in relations’
There remains huge potential for tension between the two sides, with Erdogan seeing himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause and being a strong backer of Hamas.
Israel meanwhile is unlikely to forget Erdogan’s past verbal assaults on the Israeli leadership that extended to accusations of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive.”
But Turkey, which is hugely dependent on Russia for its energy imports, is keen to diversify supplies and has a close eye on Israel’s own developing resources.
Israel is searching for energy partners to develop its Leviathan natural gas field in a bid to make it economically feasible.
“I believe energy is a sweetener in normalizing Turkish-Israeli relations,” energy expert Necdet Pamir of Bilkent University in Ankara told AFP.
“From Israel’s perspective, shipping its gas to Europe through Turkey is the most profitable way,” Pamir said. “Turkey is the most rational market for Israel.”
Steinitz said Israel has discovered so far approximately 900 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas but further exploration could raise the estimated reserves to around 3,000 bcm.
“This is a lot of gas — much more than a little country like Israel can consume.”
The talks on the proposed Israel-Turkey pipeline come just three days after Russia and Turkey signed an agreement on the construction of the TurkStream pipeline to pump Russian gas to Turkey and Europe.
‘Token of normalization’
The relationship between the two countries plunged to an all time low after the Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound ship that killed 10 Turks as a knife and club-wielding mob on the vessel violently resisted the IDF boarding party. Seven IDF soldiers were injured, four of them moderately, the rest sustaining light injuries. The Turkish fatalities prompted Ankara to expel the Israeli ambassador and freeze all defense ties.
The two sides finally agreed in June to end the bitter six-year rift after long-running secret talks in third countries with Israel offering $20 million in compensation, an apology over the raid and permission for Turkish aid to reach Gaza.
Israel and Turkey are now set to return their ambassadors to their posts, with the Israeli foreign ministry due to appoint an envoy to Ankara on October 27.
The deal appeared to be part of a general recalibration of Turkish foreign policy under Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who took over in May, to limit regional disputes that had multiplied under his predecessor Ahmet Davutoglu including with Russia.
Steinitz described his visit as “a token of this normalization process that has just started.”
The minister said he had also discussed the involvement of Turkish companies in improving the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, insisting this was not against Israel’s interests so long as its security was preserved.