Gaza and Gas at Heart of Russian Reservations Over Israel-Turkey Rapprochement

Since the downing of a Russian jet over Syria, Russia's ties with Ankara have deteriorated, and Putin is concerned by Turkish influence in Gaza and possible gas ties with Israel.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold.
Russian Foreign Ministry

Russia is dissatisfied with Israel's pending rapprochement agreement with Turkey, Haaretz has learned.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov submitted the reservations of President Vladimir Putin's government during a meeting in Moscow on Thursday afternoon with Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov leaves after giving a news conference in Moscow, Russia, January 26, 2016.
Reuters

Ministry spokesman Emanuel Nachshon refused to answer questions on the subject.

Also in Gold's delegation were his bureau chief, Shimon Shapira, Political Bureau head Alon Ushpiz and the ministry's Deputy Director General of Liaison Gilad Cohen.

The main items on the Israeli agenda were the situation in Syria and media reports about the arrival in Iran of the first shipment of S-300 missiles from Russia.

However, one of the central issues raised by the Russian side regarded the contacts between Israel and Turkey on a reconciliation agreement that would end a five-year crisis provoked by the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.

The Russians, who have been locked in a severe dispute with Turkey since the downing of a Russian jet over Syria in November last year, are concerned about some of the benefits that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will receive in the context of an agreement with Israel.

Even before Turkey's downing of the Russian aircraft, Turkey-Russia relations were in deep crisis over Russia's increased involvement in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

The government in Ankara supports many of the rebel groups and is accused by Russia of supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) in order to bring down Assad.

Turkey, for its part, accuses Russia of supporting Kurdish rebel groups carrying out attacks on Turkish targets from Syrian territory. Erdogan went as far as to say on Wednesday that the Russian bombing raids in Syria were aimed at civilians and could amount to war crimes.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia of assisting the Assad regime in the ethnic cleansing of civilians in Aleppo.

An Israeli source knowledgeable about the Russian position regarding the Israel-Turkey contacts said that Moscow is not interested in having Turkey gain a substantial foothold in the Gaza Strip.

As part of the negotiations with Israel, Turkey has demanded free access to Gaza and special status with regard to the import of humanitarian equipment into the Strip and the construction of infrastructure, such as a power generator for electricity.

Turkey is not demanding the lifting of Israel's blockade on the strip, believing that by gaining free access to Gaza it will be able to claim a significant achievement in softening the blockade.

Another Russian reservatrion regards the possibility of cooperation between Israel and Turkey on natural gas. Russia is currently Turkey's main supplier of natural gas.

Russia's negative attitude to the agreement with Turkey is shared by Egypt, which is also opposed to giving Turkey special status in Gaza – a move which it thinks will damage Egyptian interests in Gaza.

On the evening before the meeting with the Israeli delegation, Lavrov spoke on the phone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, though it is not known whether they discussed the contacts between Israel and Turkey.

The combined opposition of Russia and Egypt is likely to have significant impact on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision on whether to sign an agreement with Turkey.

A senior Israeli official said a powerful group of defense officials, who were previously in favor of normalization with Turkey, are now of the opinion that Israel doesn't need to be in a hurry to sign the reconciliation agreement.

Those senior defense officials, the most prominent of whom is Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, believe that continued Hamas terror activity from Turkish territory, combined with concern about Israel's ties with Russia and Egypt, call into question the degree to which signing the agreement with Turkey at the present time will contribute to Israel's interests.

Ya'alon himself gave voice to that mood during a press conference in Switzerland last week, when he said that Turkey has greater interest than Israel in reaching true reconciliation.

Israel's concerns over damage to its ties with Russia are based primarily on the Russian military involvement in Syria and the fear that tension with Russia at this time would do harm to Israeli interests, such as the air force's freedom of action in Syria and Russian arms transfers to Iran and the Syrian army, from where they reach Hezbollah.

The current round of talks between Israel and Turkey in Geneva last week ended with tangible progress. Senior Turkish officials have made media statements recently to the effect that all the items on which there was disagreement have now been resolved and the sides are ready to sign an agreement.

Those statements were denied in Jerusalem, where officials said that several disagreements still need to be resolved, despite the progress. Senior officials said in response that Russia "never reached out to Israel to reject the deal with Turkey."