- A pipeline carrying Israeli gas to the European market via Turkey is one option
- Ankara recently offered to take on a greater role in NATO missions as a sign of its commitment to the alliance
ANKARA: Turkey’s hopes of improving trade relations with Israel have been strengthened with the arrival of a commercial attache at the nation’s embassy in Tel Aviv.
The surprise move was reported by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot late on Thursday. Israel has a trade attache in Istanbul to build economic bridges between the two countries.
Before the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists on board a Gaza-bound aid ship, bilateral ties were dominated by strong trade, business and tourism, as well as defense cooperation, including joint air force exercises.
Although defense relations were weakened by the damage to political ties, trade and business relations have been growing steadily.
In 2017, Israel imported $2.9 billion worth of Turkish goods — mainly cars, iron, plastic, machinery, textiles and metals. Its exports to Turkey — mainly chemicals and refined oil — were worth $1.4 billion.
Cooperation on energy resources is a source of untapped potential. Turkey wants to diversify its energy imports, which are dependent on Russia, while Israel plans to use its own domestic energy resources, including vast undersea gas reserves, for regional leverage.
A pipeline carrying Israeli gas to the European market via Turkey is one option. But any pipeline will cross Cyprus’s economic exclusion zone and will require a successful outcome from the country’s peace talks.
Selin Nasi, an expert on Israel-Turkey relations, said Turkey’s decision to appoint a commercial attache to Israel is a positive step.
“But it is too early to say whether it will lead to a political reconciliation. The conflicts that prompted Turkey’s downgrading of diplomatic ties still remain,” she told Arab News.
Relations between the two countries improved after Israel agreed to provide $20 million in compensation to the families of victims of the Mavi Marmara raid. However, hostility at the political level resurfaced recently over the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“The US will not revoke its Jerusalem decision,” Nasi said.
“Israel has been doubling down the siege on Gaza. Soon, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is expected to announce a peace deal that had no Palestinian involvement.”
Prospects for a deeper engagement between Turkey and Israel in the short term seem poor, she said.
However, behind the scenes, diplomatic initiatives are helping to restore ties.
“The two countries still cooperate on several issues, be it trade or intelligence sharing against terrorism,” she said.
Turkey was as the first Muslim county to recognize Israeli statehood in 1948 and has since signed several economic agreements with Tel Aviv.
Gallia Lindenstrauss, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the appointment of an economic attache highlights conflicting trends in the relationship between the two countries.
“On the one hand, the states seem to be on a collision course over Jerusalem and Gaza. On the other, there are still economic benefits from maintaining relations and even trying to improve the trade volume,” she said.
According to Lindenstrauss, the Turkish Embassy in Israel was understaffed following years of bilateral disagreements and the appointment is an attempt to correct the problem.
Eitan Naeh, Israeli ambassador to Ankara, left Turkey on May 15 at Ankara’s request following the killing of 60 Palestinians by Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border. Turkey also recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.
Experts view the trade move as a pragmatic reconciliation. Israel is among the top 10 export markets for Turkish products globally.
According to Nasi, if Turkey’s appointment of an economic attache to Israel is not followed by the reciprocal return of ambassadors to their posts, it will show that economic cooperation will constitute the backbone of relations between the countries.
From a broader perspective, this decision might also be related to Turkish-American relations, Nasi said. “At a time when Turkey and the US have been moving to repair ties, Turkey’s move can be read as a gesture of goodwill toward Washington,” she said.
Relations between Ankara and Washington, two NATO allies, have improved recently with cooperation over Syria. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met his US and French counterparts Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron during the NATO summit this week.
Ankara recently offered to take on a greater role in NATO missions as a sign of its commitment to the alliance.