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The Hamas-Turkey-Israel triangle

At the end of June, Israel and Turkey signed a reconciliation agreement ending the diplomatic breakdown that began in 2010 following the death of Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara ship off the coast of Gaza. The ship was attempting to break the blockade of Gaza enforced by Israel.

Since then, a lot has happened in Turkey. The failed coup, allegedly organised by a substantial part of the military elite on 15 July came as a shock to all commentators of Turkish politics. The government’s swift response has been received with concern by policy-makers in the West with some analysts arguing that Turkey’s relationship with both the US and EU is headed for turbulence. The post-coup reaction has resulted in a significant change of heads in the military, judiciary and state bureaucracy, but it is still too early to assess whether it means a considerable change in policy. One relationship yet to be affected is the renewed Turkish-Israeli one.

Both sides had sound strategic reasons to seal the reconciliation deal. Erdogan’s ‘zero problems’ foreign policy had metamorphasised into a ‘zero friends’ policy, severely limiting Turkey’s ability to pursue its regional interests. Israel meanwhile was looking to capitalise on shared interests with neighbouring states to deal with the threat of Iran and ISIS, and creating, as PM Benjamin Netanyahu explained, ‘centres of stability’ in the region. Additional benefits of the rapprochement will most likely be improved Israeli-Turkish intelligence sharing; increased Turkish aid and assistance to Gaza; and the continued development of energy cooperation in the region (although this may also depend on resolving the long-standing territorial dispute in Cyprus.) A comprehensive BICOM analysis of the agreement can be found here.

Yet while the deal is undoubtedly a welcome development in a region short on good news, it fails to address the underlying structural tensions surrounding Israel and Turkey’s initial disagreement – their conflicting approaches to Hamas.  And despite its many positive aspects, the agreement leaves Hamas as a dangerous third wheel to potentially disrupt the renewed Israeli-Turkish ties.

After years of on-off negotiations, the deal was ultimately sealed due to willingness on both sides to compromise. Israel admitted operational mistakes in the Mavi Marmara deaths and paid monetary compensation (which some Israeli members of the security cabinet were very critical of, arguing that it set a dangerous precedent). Turkey dropped its demand to end the naval blockade of Gaza, an issue which had previously been a ‘red line’. Yet Hamas seemingly didn’t compromise one bit. Gaza’s Islamist rulers still hold the bodies of two IDF soldiers and two other Israeli civilians. They still uphold their opposition to the Quartet principles – renouncing violence, recognising Israel and committing to previously signed agreements. They will still be able to maintain a ‘diplomatic’ office in Turkey. And they persist in exploiting aid entering Gaza to build more operational tunnels.

There is much positive potential in renewed Turkey-Israel ties. But in the long term, the major challenge for the agreement’s durability will be Hamas and its actions. Gaza is still a tinder box, with Hamas failing to provide long-term solutions for its long-suffering population and inter-Palestinian disagreement foiling any potential arrangement to open up the Strip’s border crossings. Moreover, another round of conflict between Hamas and Israel is not beyond the realm of possibility. Yet how will Israel and Turkey manage their relations in such a situation? In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge and the height of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman attempt to lead the Middle East, the Turkish leader accused Israel of “barbarism” which “surpassed even Hitler’s”. A couple of years earlier he told Israeli President Shimon Peres he was good at killing. How might he respond in the future, as Israel reacts to missile barrages and casualty figures on both sides rise by the day?

Even if reports from a senior defence source suggesting any future Israel-Hamas war would be the movement’s last prove to be unfounded, such a conflict may severely put Israeli-Turkish relations to the test.

Ultimately the real challenge for the agreement’s resilience will be in times of real tension. Whether by fault or design, Hamas is now (dangerously) placed as the third wheel in the burgeoning Turkish-Israel relationship, and can be the deciding player as to whether the regionally important reconciliation endures.

Samuel Nurding is BICOM’s Research Analyst