When Bibi's Right: How Gas Is Driving Turkey Back Into Israel's Arms

They made fun of Bibi for saying energy can be a strategic asset, but it seems access to Israeli natural gas is compelling Erdogan to overcome his aversion to the Jewish state.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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People wave flags and hold a portrait of Erdogan  in Ankara, November 2, 2015.
People wave flags and hold a portrait of Erdogan in Ankara, November 2, 2015.Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

They all laughed when Bibi sat down at the piano to play his song about natural gas and its vital role in enhancing Israel's national security.

The prime minister has sounded the notes over and over again about how energy exports will form the basis of deep and lasting friendships with Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus, Greece, maybe even Turkey. But this is the Middle East, his critics sneered, where the basis for alliances is politics and religion, not business and economics. Anyhow, Egypt recently found plenty of its own gas and has enough to supply Jordan, too, so they don't need Israel, they said.

Netanyahu's national security argument seemed so patently ridiculous that the conventional wisdom said it had to be a cover for his real interest in getting the controversial plan for Israel's gas economy approved: to sell out the country to the tycoons and Texans who control the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields.

The last laugh, however, may be Netanyahu's. Suddenly Israel and Turkey have been making progress on patching up their differences over the Mavi Marmara flotilla of 2010, and are ready to resume ambassadorial representation. Oh, and also on the agenda are talks about Israel exporting natural gas to Turkey.

Neo-Ottoman designs

Israel has been longing for the days when Jerusalem and Ankara were fast friends. The breakdown in relations was the work of Turkish Prime Minister (and now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who doesn't have room for Israel in his Islamist ideology and in any case saw the Jewish state as unnecessary baggage as he tried to establish Turkey as a regional hegemon.

Erdogan's anger over the Mavi Marmara and Israel's repeated wars with Hamas were probably not informed by human rights concerns (few of which he has shown back at home) but by the image of himself as a Muslim leader defending the rights of other Muslims and damning their enemies.

But even the best Muslim is subject to pushes and pulls of the real world. Erdogan's neo-Ottoman designs for the region have been a flop.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government he backed was quickly toppled. Iraq is now in the Iranian orbit and his bid to oust Bashar Assad in Syria not only failed but drew in Russia as a big, dangerous opponent.

How dangerous was demonstrated by Moscow's response to Turkey shooting down a Russian jet fighter that flew into its territory.

Actually Israel is the one neighboring power with which Turkey has no fundamental disputes. But it took the pull of natural gas to bring the reluctant Erdogan closer, and this is where Bibi's national security argument is manifesting itself.

When Moscow gets peeved

Turkey's economy is growing and industrializing, but it doesn't have much of its own energy and what it imports comes from places that are unreliable. Not just Russia, which accounted for close to 60% of Turkey's gas imports in 2013, but Iran and Iraq. The latter two provide more than half Turkey's oil and 20% of its gas.

Russia hasn't turned off the gas spigot – after all it has an interest in selling gas as much as Turkey has an interest in buying it -- but Vladimir Putin's other sanctions and tough talk provided a bitter taste of what an angry Russia could do. The same goes for an angry Iran, if the day comes. Turkey, after all, has serious disagreements with both countries about who will rule the roost in the Middle East – or at least try to.

A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defense Ministry December 4, 2015, shows strikes by Russia's air force hitting tankers in Syria.Credit: Reuters

The day of alternative fuels if approaching, but for now gas remains is a strategic asset, just as Bibi said.

That's a little hard for Israel to get used to. We're supposed to be Startup Nation and if we have anything economically useful to provide the world, it’s our innovative prowess, which indeed is helping to win China's friendship. Oil and gas have traditionally been the currency of Israel's enemies, but the fact is we now have some of that currency, too.

The only question remaining is whether Erdogan will decide to set aside his Islamism in favor of Turkey's strategic interests, not just as a tactical response to the pressures he's feeling now but as a long-term policy.

There are some faint signals that he might just be doing that, even though a vigorous Islam is not just the raison d'etre of his AKP party but shared by the great majority of ordinary Turks. Bilateral trade remained strong even when Israel and Turkey were on the diplomatic outs, and Erdogan never ordered talks on a gas pipeline to be broken off. There are a lot of powerful business interests in Turkey that need and want the gas, and even after a decade of AKP rule business still seems to get the final word. You can toast that when you’re ordering an alcoholic drink on Turkish Airlines.

In any case, gas isn't the stuff of short-term accommodations. If Israel and Turkey are going to make a deal, it will involve Israel spending billions of dollars developing Leviathan and Turkey billions more on a pipeline and a long-term contract. Once the two countries have decided to tie the knot, it will be very difficult to undo.



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