Europe

Gas pipeline hope heals rupture in Israel-Turkey ties

An Israeli gas platform in the Mediterranean Sea west of Israel's port city of Ashdod in February 2013 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Israel is looking to transfer natural gas from its offshore fields to markets as far away as Europe

All the painstaking efforts aimed at mending Turkish-Israeli relations are finally paying off, six years after they broke off in acrimony.

Last week, Yuval Steinitz became the first Israeli minister to visit Turkey since 2010, for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak.

The visit signalled a significant turning-point in relations as they agreed to deepen co-operation and discussed the possibility of building a natural gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey.

Hours later, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the two nations would be exchanging ambassadors within 10 days.

Bilateral relations went into the deep freeze in May 2010 when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a ship that was part of an aid flotilla trying to breach the blockade of Gaza. Ten Turkish activists on board were killed.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Israel's storming of the Turkish Mavi Marmara in 2010 scuppered bilateral relations

Why now?

It has taken several rounds of secret talks and negotiations for the two countries to get to this point.

"This rapprochement is based on realpolitik and on a realistic evaluation of the situation on the ground," says Ahmet Kasim Han from Turkey's Kadir Has University.

"There is a challenging environment for all the countries in the Middle East, and no-one has the luxury to resist co-operation when there is a mutual interest," he argues.

For Ahmet Kasim Han, both countries are concerned by Iran's role in Syria and want an end to the conflict. They also share similar views on Saudi Arabia.

"The two countries' interests overlap to a great extent. And energy deals also form a very positive and constructive opportunity for both," he says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Gassing like old friends? Israeli and Turkish energy ministers meet for the World Energy Congress in Istanbul last week

Israel and Turkey announced in June that they would normalise ties, and last month Israel paid $20m (£16m) to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara raid. Israel already yielded to Turkey's demand for an official apology in 2013.

In addition to compensation, Israel agreed to Turkey's humanitarian presence in Gaza, though it has not agreed to another of Ankara's preconditions - the lifting of the Gaza blockade.

What is the pipeline project?

Ever since Israeli made significant finds of natural gas in 2009, there have been dreams of transferring it from offshore fields such as Leviathan and Tamar.

Energy Minister Steinitz said Israel had so far discovered around 900bn cubic metres of natural gas, with a potential further 2,200bn to be explored.

"This is a lot of gas, much more than we can consume. Exporting gas to our neighbours in the region or to Europe through different pipelines is of course very important," he said.

Israel is building regional energy co-operation links with Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus and Greece, but sees Turkey as an important potential partner.

Sir Michael Leigh, an expert on Mediterranean gas and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the US, thinks the reason this project is back on the table is because of the normalising of Israeli-Turkey relations.

"The two governments are eager to find ways to make this normalisation more solid and to translate it also into concrete forms of economic co-operation. From a political point of view, it's very attractive to designate energy as an area with possible future co-operation," he says.

How does Turkey stand to benefit?

At the moment, Turkey has few major gas sources, with Russia supplying around 56% of its overall needs.

Dr Han thinks although the crisis between Russia and Turkey following the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 has been resolved, it had a sobering effect on Turkey and threw its energy dependence into sharp relief.

"Turkey needs to diversify its energy sources. Of course, there might also be money to be made for Turkey once it becomes an energy hub," he says.

Experts say there are two possible routes that a pipeline could take from Israel to Turkey: one through Lebanese and Syrian waters, and the other through Cyprus's waters.

The Syrian war rules out the first option and the Cyprus route would also be difficult to achieve, given Turkey's 1974 invasion of the island after a Greek-inspired coup, and its subsequent division.

"As long as the problem of the division of Cyprus remains unresolved, it is most unlikely that the government of Cyprus will give its consent to this route. Until there is a settlement, this project in reality cannot go ahead," Michael Leigh argues.

Cyprus aims to heal its great divide

How does Israel stand to benefit?

Israel is searching for energy partners to develop its natural gas fields and make them economically feasible.

"Israel needs to supply international markets and monetise the gas as soon as possible. It is very important that the pipeline is constructed quickly," says Dr Han.

"Turkey will be the most effective and cheapest route, and it will also be an attractive market with its own demand. So it is natural for Israel to prefer Turkey," he argues.

Michael Leigh agrees that the Turkish option would benefit Israel, especially if relations improve. "The pipeline to Turkey would be relatively easy to construct and the political uncertainties in Turkey are not as great as the political risks in Egypt," he says.

Will there be a lasting peace?

Although the process of rapprochement has started, the potential for future disagreement is never far away.

Israel is unlikely to forget President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's bitter condemnation of its actions, labelling it "a terrorist state that massacres innocent children". He has even accused Israel's government of "keeping Hitler's spirit alive".

Turkey's backing for the Palestinian cause could also prove problematic. It has been a supporter of the militant Islamist group Hamas, which runs Gaza.

"During the 1990s, Israeli-Turkey relations were maintained by the co-operation of the two armies' generals. Now businessmen will carry that responsibility," says Dr Han.

"Even though diplomatic ties were frozen, Israeli ports were always open to Turkish goods and services in the last five years. Pragmatism is an important parameter in Israeli-Turkish relations.

"But ties between the two countries are very dependant on their domestic politics - and that could ruin them. There is always that risk," he warns.

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