After a six-year chill, Turkey and Israel begin to normalize relations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the economic benefits of ending the six-year diplomatic chill over the Israeli navy's killing of Turkish activists in 2010.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
A Turkish flag flutters atop the Turkish embassy as an Israeli flag is seen nearby in Tel Aviv, Israel on Sunday.

The once-close allies of Turkey and Israel have reached an agreement to normalize ties after a six-year rift, after Israeli marines killed nine Turkish activists aboard a humanitarian ship attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010.

According to the agreement, which the countries are expected to announce Monday, Israel will pay $20 million to the bereaved and injured aboard the Mavi Marmara passenger ship, while Turkey will deliver aid and carry out infrastructure improvements in Gaza. The arrangement could also benefit Israel’s interest in developing its offshore natural gas reserves.

Resumed diplomacy between the two countries could bring a measure of peace to a region destabilized by the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, and the migrant crisis. Diplomacy between Israel and Turkey could bring Turkey closer to two of its rivals, Greece and Egypt, as well.  

A senior Turkish official said the agreement was a “diplomatic victory,” according to Reuters.

“We reached an agreement Israel to normalize bilateral relations on Sunday in Rome,” the official said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Rome Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry Monday, said the agreement is an important step, alluding to the development of natural gas reserves off the Israeli coast.

“I use that word advisedly, immense implications for the Israeli economy, and I mean positive immense implications,” said Mr. Netanyahu.

As the first majority-Muslim country to recognize Israel, in 1949, Turkey had long been one of Israel’s closest allies in the Muslim world. The countries grew even closer during the 1990s, but they then began to drift apart because of Israel’s conflicts with the Palestinians. “The final straw” was Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in December. The two countries then withdrew their ambassadors, and gave each other the cold shoulder.  

In 2013, Israel and Turkey began to quietly mend fences in trade and tourism, starting with a conciliatory phone call between the countries' leaders. Negotiations to fully restore diplomacy and return the two ambassadors intensified over the past six months.

The agreement will not only benefit Turkey, which has seen its friends in the Mediterranean dwindle, but Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Turkey has become isolated in the region, as its relations with Russia deteriorated after it shot down a Russian warplane flying over Turkish airspace in November. Turkey’s relationship with Egypt is also strained.  

Under a Turkey-Israel agreement, Turkey will deliver humanitarian aid and other non-military products to Gaza, which Israel has blockaded to prevent the ruling party of Hamas from smuggling weapons there. Turkey will also carry out infrastructure projects including residential buildings and a hospital in the area, according to the senior Turkish official who spoke about the agreement, and address the water and power crises in Gaza.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed satisfaction with the agreement, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who spoke with Mr. Abbas Sunday night.

An agreement will better position Israel to develop its offshore natural gas reserves, perhaps with Greece and Cyprus. And such an alliance could bring Greece closer with Turkey, despite their rivalry

“This is all part of a larger pattern,” Eran Lerman, a former international affairs deputy on Israel’s National Security Council, told the Monitor in January. “There is a vital need for all of us who are like minded in the eastern Mediterranean to work together.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.  

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