Turkey and Israel’s deep trade ties expose the emptiness of Erdogan’s rhetoric over Jerusalem

Without a shift in Turkey’s economic connections to Israel, Ankara's fiery words amount to very little, writes Joseph Dana

Turkish Airlines (THY) aircraft are seen parked at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey December 8, 2017. Picture taken December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
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More than a decade ago, Turkey set out to rebrand itself as an international tourism and trade hub. A crucial part of this transformation was Turkish Airlines. The national flag carrier now flies to more destinations than any other airline in the world and has remade Istanbul into a global city. Given the airline's reach, it is surprising that one of its most popular and lucrative routes is Tel Aviv to Istanbul. Turkish Airlines is the second most popular carrier out of Tel Aviv after Israel's national carrier El Al.

With more than 12 flights a day from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, divided between Turkish Airlines and the low-cost carrier Pegasus, Turkey is a dominant force in the Israeli aviation market. But this is only one aspect of a deep economic partnership between Turkey and Israel. Despite fiery rhetoric in support of Palestinians from Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country stands alone in the Muslim world as one of Tel Aviv's dependable partners.

In the fallout following US president Donald Trump’s designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel there have been condemnations across the Arab world. Turkey has been a loud voice in this process. Mr Erdogan hosted an emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. At the end of the conference, Turkey announced it would recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and open an embassy there. Mr Erdogan’s attempts to lead the defence of Jerusalem have caused tension with Arab leaders over broader regional affairs.

There was, however, something missing from Turkey's verbose proclamations of support for the Palestinian people: a plan to cut economic ties with Israel. Beyond the popularity of the Tel Aviv-Istanbul flight route, Turkey enjoys a vibrant economic relationship with Israel crowned by shared attempts to upend the European natural gas market.

In 2009, Israel discovered large reserves of natural gas off its Mediterranean coast. While the exact size of the gas fields is unknown, they are rumoured to contain at least 150 years’ worth of reserves. The problem is how best to export the gas to European markets keen to wean themselves off Russia’s  supply. Instead of working with Cyprus and Greece or investing in liquefaction units, Tel Aviv has been partnering closely with Ankara to create a pipeline into Turkey. The prospect of this energy partnership has helped smooth the political tensions between the two countries that had bubbled to the surface in the past seven years.

As part of its attempts to make itself an international energy trading hub, Turkey has worked closely with Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan to create pipelines that bring hydrocarbon resources into Turkey and then export them to European markets. In July, Bloomberg reported Turkey was pushing Israel to lean on Cyprus in the hopes of persuading the Cypriots to allow a pipeline connecting Israel and Turkey to pass through their territory. The economic partnership is not limited to natural gas. As a result of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has been using Israel's Haifa port as an important gateway to landlocked countries such as Jordan. Turkish goods used to flow through Syria but now they go through Israel.

The economic relationship aside, Mr Erdogan has made support of Palestinians a key part of his domestic populist appeal. With his fervent support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot in Gaza, Hamas, Mr Erdogan has used the issue of Palestine to maintain relevance after the Arab Spring. Turkey used its stable position at the outset of the uprisings to push for a complete transformation of the Middle East. Ankara had hoped the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power and Turkey would emerge as a neo-Ottoman regional superpower.

This strategy failed. Mr Erdogan found himself under attack at home from protesters of all stripes and fighting to solidify his regional power after betting on the wrong side in the Arab Spring. As a result, the logical solution for Mr Erdogan was to wholeheartedly embrace the Palestinian struggle.

Mr Erdogan saw himself as the leader who would liberate Palestine and succeed where the Arab world had failed before him. While this persona played well for the home crowd, the economic relationship between Israel and Turkey was never in danger, even at the height of the diplomatic impasse following Israel’s attack on a Turkish aid ship to Gaza in 2010. Political relations strained but, through it all, Israelis kept flying Turkish Airlines and the natural gas partnership advanced. Without a shift in Turkey’s deep economic connections to Israel, fiery words about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians amount to little more than hollow rhetoric.

It is hardly surprising that Mr Erdogan would use the US decision on Jerusalem to drape himself in the Palestinian colours and proclaim himself a true friend of the Palestinians. The words uttered by Mr Erdogan are ultimately a sad reminder of regional division, which Israel has used to its own advantage.