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Will a Pipeline Warm Israel-Turkey Relations?

Among the issues being debated by Israel’s new government is what to do with its energy wealth. Israel’s neighbors are listening in on this debate closely. One country in particular has its ear pressed against the door: Turkey. The FT reports:

As for pipelines, senior Israeli and Turkish officials have suggested that Turkey is the one market in the region large enough to make the business case for Israeli gas exports.

Zorlu Holding, a Turkish company active in the Israeli energy sector, acknowledged recently that the issue of a pipeline with Israel had “come up” in its discussions, although it added that it had taken no formal initiative. […]

Taner Yildiz, Turkey’s energy minister, said last week that before any pipeline project could go ahead, Israel would have to meet Ankara’s demands for redress over the 2010 storming of the Mavi Marmara, a ship trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

One of the biggest stories in Israel’s emergence as an energy power is how and to what extent it can or should use its natural wealth to improve its fraught political position. As of now, Ankara has set out conditions for negotiating a pipeline, including an Israeli apology for the Mavi Marmara fiasco. But two factors might make Turkey’s hand weaker than it looks.

First, this isn’t just about Israel. Huge discoveries of energy beneath the Mediterranean are changing the geopolitics of Turkey’s neighborhood. An alliance between Greece, Cyprus, and Russia to develop deep energy ties would bring Turkey’s historic enemies and rivals into alignment in a way that Turks find disturbing. Putting Israel into that mix doesn’t help.

Second, Turks like cheap and clean energy as much as other people. The ruling party’s coalition includes many Anatolian businessmen whose enterprises would benefit enormously from a reliable and affordable energy supply. Those business interests could soften the instinctive hostility that many Turkish Islamists feel towards the Jewish state.

There are, however, strong reasons for relations to remain frosty. Turkey has tried to position itself as a leader of the Sunni world in Syria and throughout the region. Much of Turkey’s new found regional popularity comes from the AK Party’s support for the Palestinian cause. In an ideological struggle with Iran, the Turkish government will not want to look too pro-Israeli.

Working through the apology issue remains key. The two sides have come close to an agreement in the past; it’s possible that the prospect of an energy relationship could help both Turks and Israelis make the compromises that could put the flotilla incident behind them. Relations won’t be as warm as they were in past decades, but a return to normal and correct official relations with close economic ties would serve both countries well.

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