Remapping of Allies: Turkey, Egypt, and Israel Bound by Energy and Security

Israel and Turkey have reached a deal after a six-year diplomatic crisis, following the deadly attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 2010. The attack on the flotilla’s lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, killed nine Turkish citizens and injured several other passengers—all of whom were en route to provide humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza Strip. In response to the event, Turkey, which was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel in 1949, downgraded its diplomatic ties with Israel. The Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had three demands in order for the two governments to restore relations: an official apology from the Israeli government, monetary compensation for the families of the flotilla victims, and lifting the Gaza blockade.

The deal fulfilled the first two demands, while it, unsurprisingly, fell short of the last. Though the agreement allows Turkish humanitarian aid to be sent to Gaza, Israeli restrictions ensure that the blockade remains fully intact. The deal requires Turkish aid to Gaza to be sent through the Port of Ashdod, allowing Israel to control the movement of all aid and stirring cynicism among Palestinian activists and human rights groups. In an op-ed published in Haaretz, the director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that monitors the Gaza blockade, described the deal as a “circumcised gesture” whereby Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed President Erdogan “to put down plastic buildings in a game of Monopoly.”

Analysts argue that the deal has both economic and political advantages for the countries, allowing Israel to ship its gas via Turkey as well as cooperate with Turkey on security matters in an unstable Middle East. Journalist Ramzy Baroud argues, “there was no lifting of the siege, but rather lifting of restrictions that would allow Israel to ship natural gas via Turkey to the rest of Europe, generating billions of dollars in the process.” The deal also creates a framework for gas companies to negotiate agreements that would allow for more Israeli gas to be sold on the Turkish market.

The deal is expected to be economically fruitful for Turkey as well. While Turkey has been simultaneously dependent on Russian natural gas and engaging in major political disputes with the Russian government over the Syrian conflict, the deal with Israel is expected to alleviate this dependency and allow Turkey to become an “energy hub between the East and West,” as described by Bloomberg News. In addition, both Israel and Turkey have been facing increased international isolation: the former for its violations of Palestinian human rights, and the latter for President Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism and intervention in Syria against Kurdish forces part of the U.S.-backed coalition battling the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Indeed, the deal reflects the regional remapping of alliances based on shifting political and economic interests.

The deal was praised by the United States and the United Nations, who have not prioritized ending the siege on Gaza or rebuilding the Strip after Israel’s summer 2014 assault. Many Palestinians, however, criticized Erdogan for compromising his proclaimed commitment to Gaza, with some Palestinians describing the agreement as the “deal of shame.” In a 27 June tweet, Gaza writer Omar Ghraieb stated that “Lifting Gaza siege means freedom of movement, not more food & aid. Is that hard to comprehend?” But some Palestinian commentators supported the deal, arguing that it is only natural in the realm of international relations for Turkey to prioritize its economic and political interests. Ibrahim Hamami, a British-Palestinian physician, stated that Turkey is the “only regional power that has tried for years to do something about the blockade,” and that the only thing that has prevented the lift of the blockade is the lack of support from other regional powers including Egypt.

Egypt has its own priorities and has similarly been moving closer toward Israel. Egypt’s foreign minister recently paid a visit to Israel, the first high profile visit in nine years. In addition to their coordinated closure of Gaza’s crossings – whose governing authority, Hamas, is the Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood loathed and hunted down by Egypt’s regime – Israel and Egypt have been working to quash militants in the Sinai Peninsula. Deputy Commander of the Israeli armed forces, Major-General Yair Golan, reportedly said that Israel mainly offers intelligence to its Egyptian counterparts, “and you do know that while fighting all sorts of insurgency, intelligence is the most important element in the whole system.” Egypt has also allowed Israeli drones to target suspected militants in the Sinai.

While Turkey and Egypt are at loggerheads over Gaza (and the state-directed Egyptian press preemptively celebrated the failed putsch in Ankara), there is a unifying thread between their respective rapprochement and amplified cooperation with Israel: both revolve around natural gas and security, especially after Israel’s discovery of the Leviathan gas field—the largest natural gas discovery in the past decade that could transform Israel into a supplier for the region’s energy needs. And as Israel and Egypt combat Islamist militants in the Sinai, the deal with Turkey is expected to enable the two countries to cooperate against ISIS.

The deal and the visit also come at a time when Netanyahu has been nurturing diplomatic ties around the world. In the beginning of July, he visited multiple African countries, the first Israeli prime minister to do so in 50 years. On the 22nd of July, a retired Saudi general visited Jerusalem in an unprecedented move to encourage Israel to accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. In a divided Middle East, Israel seems to be brokering one deal after another, especially with countries that, for decades, have claimed to be putative supporters of the occupied Palestinian people.

The new regional order has disrupted both the Palestinian Authority’s internationalization of the Palestinian cause and Hamas’s relations with Turkey. Most immediately pertinent to Hamas, it will be allowed to keep its Istanbul office, but Turkey assured Israel – which accused Hamas of plotting attacks from said office – that Hamas’ activities will be restricted to diplomatic conduct. Many argue that this rapid remapping might be an opportunity for the Palestinian leadership to learn a lesson—namely that deploying international and Arab allies to do the Palestinian leadership’s bidding is risky and shortsighted. What is needed is a reconsideration of the Palestinian leadership’s priorities and a plan that places the Palestinian people as the most strategic and stable force in the region. As Institute for Palestine Studies Senior Fellow Mouin Rabbani has observed, “beyond reviving the national movement, the primary responsibility for Palestinian leadership today is to once again ensure that the Palestinian cause is a sacrosanct one that rises above the region’s differences and unites its rivals — including Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — in its support, rather than one where its mediocre politicians permit themselves to become proxy footballs played between various capitals on behalf of regional agendas that all but ignore Palestine.”

This article is by Institute for Palestine Studies summer intern Hashem Abushama.