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Israel Faces a Difficult Balancing Act in the Eastern Mediterranean

Escalating political tensions that are sparking fears of a hot conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean go beyond a competition to control energy and natural resources. Instead, the tensions reflect a multilayered, geopolitical power struggle among regional and even global actors. From this perspective, Turkey and Israel’s positions have drawn a lot of interest since any future cooperation between the region’s two important military powers is likely to shape strategic balances in the Mediterranean as well as the wider Middle East.

Since the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, regional developments have pitted Turkey against Israel. Alliances that were planted back then have flourished over the years. The lack of a genuine normalization between the two countries has only further deepened their differences. For one, the downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations from 2008 provided an opportunity for Greece, which has traditionally maintained a pro-Palestinian stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict, to replace Turkey as a close regional partner in terms of economic and security cooperation. Of course, given the historical problems between Greece and Turkey, the Netanyahu government was all too aware that forging close ties with Athens would unnerve Ankara. Hydrocarbon discoveries like Tamar (2008) and Leviathan (2010) in Israeli waters as well as Aphrodite (2011) in the contested territorial waters of Cyprus also fostered closer ties among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. In the following years, with the inclusion of other countries, this energy cooperation has evolved into a political and strategic partnership that has gained an institutional aspect, particularly with the establishment of the East Med Gas Forum in January 2020.

Turkey, naturally, opposed gas drilling activities in Cyprus’ contested maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), namely Block 12, as well as the East Med pipeline project to carry Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe through Cyprus, Crete, and Greece on the grounds that it violated the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey’s own EEZ. Given the problematic state of Ankara’s ties with the majority of the countries involved in the East Med Gas Forum, Turkey viewed this formation as a hostile front and aimed to contain and circumvent it.

In parallel to the emerging partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean, the geopolitics of the Arab protests of 2011 unexpectedly brought Israel and the Gulf countries closer together as both viewed Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East as a threat to them.

While Turkey and Israel have positioned themselves in rival power blocs, they have also avoided direct confrontation and even managed to pursue bilateral relations in a compartmentalized manner. Today, Israel faces difficulty in trying to maintain a form of balance in the Mediterranean. On the one hand, Israel wants to secure the future of its energy investments and maintain close ties with the rest of the East Med Gas Forum, which explains its siding with Greece. However, it also does not want to be drawn into a hot conflict . It is no coincidence that in the wake of last November’s Turkey-Libya maritime deal, former Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz expressed his country’s opposition to the agreement, only adding that they “wouldn’t be sending battleships to confront Turkey.”

Even though Israel is aligned with the camp that includes countries like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Cyprus, and France, it has the potential to play a constructive role in terms of de-escalating tension in the region and even facilitating a normalization in the ties between Turkey and others. Of course, however, all that is contingent on normalization first occurring between Turkey and Israel.

It might seem, then, that a compromise in the near future between Turkey and Israel might be overly optimistic. Still, one should not discount the possibility of cooperation centering on common economic and political interests in the longer term. The recent fall of energy prices caused by the coronavirus pandemic has undermined the viability of the East Med pipeline. Ankara’s assertive foreign policy, on the other hand – especially its military presence in Syria and Libya – has strengthened its hand strategically. Even though Turkey has become a party to the conflicts, it is also a key player in any future post-war negotiations.

From a broader perspective, developments such as the reported behind-the-scenes dialogue between Turkey and Israel in May as well as Israel’s agreement to delay annexing the West Bank in return for normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates (other countries such as Bahrain, Oman, and Sudan are expected to follow suit) seem like prudent planning for a post-Trump Middle East on Israel’s part.  Ankara is experiencing the same story: The likelihood that Turkey will clash with a Biden administration could convince the country to search for new forms of balance.

About the Author: 

Selin Nasi
Selin Nasi is a doctoral candidate at Bogazici University in the Department of Political Science and International Relations. She was formerly a columnist at Hurriyet Daily News (2015-2018). She also worked as a regular columnist at Şalom (2013-2018), the weekly newspaper for the Jewish Community of Turkey.

SAKHRI Mohamed

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