The Turkish government has just announced the effective expulsion of Eitan Na’eh, Israel’s Ambassador to Ankara. According to the Daily Sabah,
“Na’eh was asked to leave Turkey indefinitely by the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs following the Israeli bloodshed and his tweets”.
The move comes as Erdogan has openly challenged other nations that have formal relations with the occupier entity to question whether such relations are beneficial to the Muslim world. The clear targets of Erdogan’s challenge are President Sisi’s Egypt – Turkey’s hated East Mediterranean rival, a waffling Jordanian monarchy and Turkey’s pro-FETO (Gulenist) Albanian nemesis in the western Balkans.
From healthy relations to the ultimate strain
Of course, Turkey was the first Muslim majority nation to recognise Israel and prior to recent decades, Ankara and Tel Aviv have had a generally healthy relationship. This dramatically changed in 2010 when Israeli commandos illegally boarded the MV Mavi Marmara in international waters. The MV Mavi Marmara was a privately chartered Turkish flagged ship carrying mostly Turkish activists on their way to Gaza in order to deliver much needed humanitarian supplies to besieged Palestinians. The gruesome raid killed ten Turks and resulted in the lowest ebb in Ankara-Tel Aviv relations until now.
Pipeline politics no more
The incident resulted in the expulsion of Tel Aviv’s ambassador to Ankara and a formal downgrading in relations. In 2016, the two sides reconciled, primarily out of pragmatic motives. At the time, both Israel and Turkey hoped to jointly participate in a pipeline that would transport gas from northern Iraq through Turkey and into Israel.
However, since then, the plans for such Turkey to Israel East Mediterranean pipeline have stalled. Instead, Tel Aviv has pivoted closer to Turkey’s regional rival Egypt (which has said next to nothing about Palestine in recent days), while most importantly there is now talk of an EU sponsored East Mediterranean pipeline between Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy.
According to the pro-Brussels New Europe,
“The EastMed gas pipeline would circumvent Turkey, which has increased tensions with Cyprus, Greece and Israel recently, providing a way to transport newly discovered gas supplies from the East Mediterranean to Europe. The talks in Nicosia in May follow a memorandum of understanding regarding the EastMed pipeline, which was signed in December.
According to the Public Gas Corporation of Greece (DEPA), the EastMed will connect the recently discovered gas fields in the Levantine Basin, in the southeast Mediterranean, with mainland Greece and is projected to carry 8-14 billion cubic meters per year of natural gas to Greece and Europe.
According to DEPA, the approximately 1900 kilometer long pipeline (700 kilometers on-shore, 1200 off-shore) consists of the three following main sections, as well as compressor stations located in Cyprus and Crete: a pipeline from the fields to Cyprus, a pipeline connecting Cyprus to Crete, and a pipeline from Crete crossing mainland Greece up to the Ionian coast.
From there the EastMed can link up with the offshore Poseidon pipeline enabling the delivery of additional diversified sources from the Levantine to Italy and beyond. The EastMed pipeline is preliminarily designed to have exit points in Cyprus, Crete, and mainland Greece as well as the connection point with the Poseidon pipeline”.
The deal to create such a pipeline was sealed in December of 2017 while glowing reports from pro-EU media touted the deal as a means of allowing Europe to decrease its dependence on Russian gas while also offering Israel a chance to swap Turkey for EU partners. As Turkey’s long paralytic bid to join the EU is now de-facto over, both Europe and Israel’s cooperation over a new East Mediterranean gas pipeline has the effect of drawing Russia and Turkey into an even closer partnership than the one they are currently in.
At the moment the Turkstream pipeline designed to bring Russian gas into Europe via Turkey is a major joint project between Moscow and Ankara. Now, both the EU and Israel are looking to challenge this route with a pipeline of their own in a similar region. In reality, there is enough demand for gas in Europe and Israel to mean that both pipelines can coexist, but the geopolitical optics are clear enough. Tel Aviv has joined forces with the most anti-Ankara states in the EU in order to cut Turkey out of Israel’s future.
The importance of Turkey’s Soft Power in the Sunni Muslim world
President Erdogan has already proved himself to be the ‘Sultan of Soft Power’ in the wider Sunni Muslim world. Without clear leadership from Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Qatar and with Saddam’s always controversial Iraqi government long out of power, Erdogan has positioned himself as a champion for Palestine not only in Turkey and the Sunni Arab world but beyond. Because of this, one should never underestimate how far Turkey will take its support of Palestine vis-a-vis Tel Aviv, not least because the more Erdogan voices his opinions in support of Palestine, the more he is respected and supported both in Turkey and far beyond.
Israel supporting Turkey’s main rivals
Because Israel has taken clear moves away from Turkey and towards its hated Hellenic rivals, officials in Ankara who in the past may have been hesitant to sever ties with Tel Aviv because of economic considerations may now be much closer to doing so. Israel’s intensifying military cooperation with both Greece and Cyprus are a further sign that when it comes to Turkey, Tel Aviv is doing everything in its power to replace its once healthy Turkish partnership with that of countries with notoriously poor and always heated relations with Ankara.
Then there is the issue of Kurdish ethno-nationalism in both Syria and Iraq. Uniquely in the world, the United States and Israel are supporters of Kurdish separatism both in northern Syria and northern Iraq. President Erdogan has already made it clear that this is one of several red lines that Israel can cross in respect of maintaining even semi-normal relations. During the attempted illegal Kurdish succession from Iraq in the autumn of 2017, Erdogan posed the following rhetorical statements to Kurdish secessionists in Iraq,
“Who will recognize your independence? Israel. The world is not about Israel?…
…“You should know that the waving of Israeli flags there will not save you!”
Traditional Anti-Turkish lobbies in the US team up with the American Jewish lobby
Finally, it is not only in the Middle East and Mediterranean where Israel has taken up common positions with Turkey’s adversaries. In the United States, the powerful Jewish lobby has joined forces with the comparatively smaller but still influential US based Hellenic and Armenian lobbies to protest the sale of US made F-35 jets to Ankara. While the move ultimately failed, it demonstrated that unlike in the past where the US Jewish lobby did not try to antagonise Turkey, in 2018, it is willing to team up with lobbies whose primary objective is to promote grievances against Turkey.
Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that Gilad Erdan, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud faction has called for Tel Aviv to recognise the events of 1915 as an “Armenian Genocide”. If Israel were to officially to do this, it would represent a clear break between Tel Aviv and Ankara and quite possibly a point of no return. The more Turkey stands up for Palestine, the more voices like those of Erdan will become amplified in arguing for a move that is less about Armenia (a traditionally anti-Zionist nation) than about sending a clear message to Turkey that the partnership has run its course.
The economic realities that have held Turkey and Israel together against great odds during the Erdogan/Netanyahu years, are rapidly unravelling. As Tel Aviv pivots its energy and commercial needs towards Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Italy and with Israel engaging in ever closer security cooperation with the Hellenic members of the EU, all the while supporting Kurdish ethno-nationalism in the Middle East, it is becoming apparent that the once unthinkable question of a long term schism between Ankara and Tel Aviv may now be inevitable.