Turkey mends fences with Israel and Russia

The moves come as a new Turkish government packed with Erdogan allies re-evaluates its foreign policy in a bid to end increasing isolation.

Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim announces the details of an agreement reached with Israel, in Ankara on June 27, 2016. Burhan Ozbilici / AP Photo
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ISTANBUL // Turkey announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel after a six-year rupture and expressed regret to Russia over the downing of a warplane on Monday, seeking to mend strained alliances and ease a sense of isolation on the world stage.

The deal with Israel after years of negotiation was a rare rapprochement in the divided Middle East, driven by the prospect of lucrative Mediterranean gas deals as well as mutual fears over growing security risks.

Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim said the two countries would exchange ambassadors as soon as possible. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal would have “immense implications” for the Israeli economy.

The Kremlin meanwhile said Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had apologised to Vladimir Putin over last year’s shooting down of a Russian air force jet by Turkey’s military, opening the way for Russia to lift economic sanctions.

A spokesman for Mr Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, confirmed a letter was sent to the Russian president, though he did not refer explicitly to an apology, something Turkish officials had long ruled out. Mr Kalin said Mr Erdogan had expressed regret and asked the family of the pilot to “excuse us”.

The moves come as a new Turkish government packed with Erdogan allies re-evaluates its foreign policy. Ankara has seen relations strained not only with Israel and Russia, but also with the United States and European Union in recent months.

Turkey’s worst nightmare in Syria has come true: Russian support has enabled its enemy Bashar Al Assad to remain in power, while Kurdish militia fighters have benefited from US support as they battle ISIL, bolstering their position in territory adjacent to the Turkish border.

Days after taking office last month, Mr Yildirim said Turkey needed to “increase its friends and decrease its enemies”, in what appeared a tacit admission that his predecessor’s policies had left the Nato member isolated.

“It seems to me Turkey is undertaking a reprioritisation of foreign policy,” said Brenda Shaffer, a visiting professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“In both of these cases, it is practical realpolitik overriding ideological considerations. There were never any bilateral disputes between Turkey and Israel, just the opposite, there were only mutual interests. The same is true for Russia.”

Relations between Israel and what was once its principal Muslim ally crumbled after Israeli marines stormed an aid ship in May 2010 to enforce a naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and killed 10 Turkish activists on board.

Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and froze military cooperation after a 2011 UN report into the Israeli raid largely exonerated Israel.

Israel and Nato member Turkey, which both border Syria, reduced intelligence sharing and cancelled joint military exercises.

The mending of relations with Israel raises the prospect of eventual cooperation to exploit natural gas reserves worth hundreds of billions of dollars under the eastern Mediterranean, officials have said. Mr Netanyahu said it opened the way for possible Israeli gas supplies to Europe via Turkey.

Speaking after meeting the US secretary of state John Kerry in Rome, Mr Netanyahu said the agreement was an important step.

“It has also immense implications for the Israeli economy, and I use that word advisedly,” he told reporters.

Mr Kerry welcomed the deal, saying: “This is a step we wanted to see happen.”

Mr Netanyahu made clear the naval blockade of Gaza, which Ankara had wanted lifted under the deal, would remain in force, although humanitarian aid could continue to be transferred to Gaza via Israeli ports.

“This is a supreme security interest of ours. I was not willing to compromise on it. This interest is essential to prevent the force build-up by Hamas and it remains as has been and is,” he said.

But Mr Yildirim said the “wholesale” blockade of Gaza was largely lifted under the deal, enabling Turkey to deliver humanitarian aid and other non-military products.

A first shipment of 10,000 tonnes would be sent next Friday, he said, and work would begin immediately to tackle Gaza’s water and power supply crisis.

A resolution in the dispute with Russia could meanwhile ease some of the diplomatic tensions around the Syria conflict. Moscow supports Mr Al Assad, while Ankara backs the rebels who are trying to oust him.

The Russian jet was shot down, with the loss of the pilot, in November while it took part in the Kremlin’s military campaign in Syria. Ankara said it acted lawfully because the plane entered Turkish air space; Moscow denied that happened.

The Kremlin responded to the downing of the plane by slapping trade restrictions on Ankara, including freezing work on a pipeline to ship Russian gas to Europe via Turkey and advising Russian tourists to avoid Turkish resorts.

Mr Putin had said those measures would be lifted only if Mr Erdogan personally issued an apology. There was no word from the Russian authorities on Monday on ending the sanctions.

The Kremlin statement said Mr Erdogan had expressed his readiness to do everything necessary to restore the traditionally friendly relations between Turkey and Russia, and also to jointly fight terrorism.

* Reuters