The oft-postponed and much discussed reconciliation between Turkey and Israel appears to be approaching its endgame. The strictly bilateral understandings on compensation and an apology by Israel for the deadly assault on the Mavi Marmara passenger ship almost six years ago have been finalised.
As both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently got elected for the office, there is no question about their power and influence in the foreseeable future. Like it or not, if there is to be an agreement, Erdogan and Netanyahu will have to overcome their mutual antipathy in pursuit of a mutually advantageous strategic payoff.
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The long-awaited rapprochement now centres on an unlikely competition for advantage in the all but abandoned Gaza Strip, against a background defined by the regional fallout from Turkey’s mistakes in Syria and the slow if deliberate turnaround in Israel’s view of the permanence of Hamas’ presence.
Closing Mavi Marmara file
Turkey has long insisted that closing the file on the Mavi Marmara should include an end to Israeli restrictions on trade with Gaza.
In this context Turkey has demanded, and Israel has rejected, “unrestricted access” to Gaza for Turkish assistance and trade.
For many years, Turkey has tried to play an economic role in Palestine, both in Gaza and more successfully in the West Bank. To that end, the Turkish think-tank the Center for Multilateral Trade Studies at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), together with the powerful Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), has recently prepared an ambitious $5bn Gaza reconstruction plan, that includes a port.
When Hamas first raised the idea of rebuilding the simple port destroyed by Israel during the Second Intifada, it was dismissed as impossible.
“We have made a strategic plan,” explained Guven Sak, the foundation’s managing director who prepared the report. “A Gaza port will be one of the most important projects of this plan.”
In Israel, the prospect of a port in Gaza has travelled a tortuous road. When Hamas first raised the idea of rebuilding the simple port destroyed by Israel during the Second Intifada, it was dismissed as impossible.
Now after many years and much conflict, the issue has been placed squarely on the desk of Netanyahu.
The engine driving this change is, as always, Israel’s security establishment.
After Hamas established uncontested control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel, together with the international community, adopted a draconian policy of restricting imports into Gaza and banning all exports, in the hope of fatally weakening the Islamist government.
Eight years and three wars later, Hamas is still in the chair, presiding over a besieged population of close to two million people and is heading full steam in a race to the bottom.
Gaza – and Palestine as a whole – is paying an extraordinary price for this policy. According to the Untied Nations, Gaza will be “uninhabitable” by 2020 if current conditions persist.
The UN report didn’t reveal anything that Israel’s defence and intelligence officials – the architects of this policy – do not already know. But they now warn that Palestinians will not be the only ones to pay the price for Gaza’s engineered descent into penury.
At a recent closed briefing on Gaza by the head of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Herzl Halevi reportedly said that, “If there won’t be improvement [in Gaza], Israel will be the first to feel it when things explode”.
Halevi explained that the critical difference between Hamas’ military capabilities, which continue to increase, and its intentions. Hamas, he said, does not want another round of hostilities with Israel and is working to prevent rocket fire into Israel. Gaza’s reconstruction, he told the Knesset, is the best way to prevent another war.
A feasible port of Gaza
In recent weeks numerous reports, inspired by progress with Ankara and the dawning realisation that Israeli security can be improved by opening Gaza to trade and commerce, have highlighted the role of a Gaza seaport as the keystone of a new, more benevolent, if self-interested, strategy.
For more than a year, Israeli security and trade officials have studied the numerous security and administrative aspects of a Palestinian seaport, defining at least five options and outlining the security and operational challenges that each presents. The options range from an offshore port and airport on the Dutch model, to privileged use of the Israeli port of Ashdod or the Egyptian port of al Arish.
Hamas’ political leadership, which has long understood both the strategic and political advantages of a maritime outlet, has made supportive noises.
“The Strip needs and wants a seaport, and that issue has also been conveyed to the Turks. The siege on Gaza will not be lifted without the establishment of a seaport,” senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya said at a recent symposium in Turkey.
“What does the world fear? That we’ll smuggle weapons? We have no intention to smuggle weapons and the world is invited operate any monitoring mechanism it wishes on this port,” he added.
The Egypt factor
Egypt is the other key player contesting for influence in Gaza. In Cairo, two views prevail: One opposes a seaport if Hamas is to reap the benefits promised by an end to the siege. The other favours any move – including a port – that reflects Israel’s continuing responsibility for Gaza’s welfare and security as the internationally recognised occupying power.
Trumping each view is the continuing antipathy between Ankara, which has yet to recognise the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government, and Cairo, which opposes Erdogan’s support for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and his desire to be viewed as Hamas’ patron and Gaza’s saviour.
However, a tentative engagement between the rivals, hastened by regional upheavals, may occur at the April Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Istanbul.
If Erdogan and Sisi can resolve their differences and end their zero-sum game in Gaza, another impediment to Israel’s endorsement of a Mediterranean seaport in Palestine will be removed.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.