An energy and diplomacy deal that would reshape the map of the eastern Mediterranean might be proceeding faster than many people think.
It is just a few weeks since, in a bid to revive frozen diplomatic ties, Israel apologised to Turkey for a deadly raid that left nine Turkish citizens dead. The process was still sufficiently shaky for US Secretary of State John Kerry to come to Istanbul last weekend to chivvy both sides to go all the way and exchange ambassadors.
There are plenty of potential slips on the way ahead: compensation has to be agreed; the fate of Turkish court cases against retired Israeli commanders has to be decided (at present, they are going ahead); and Ankara still has to pronounce itself satisfied with the lifting of restrictions on civilian goods to Gaza (relevant, because the flotilla stormed by Israeli Defence Forces in 2010 was seeking to break the Gaza blockade).
But it is becoming increasingly apparent that both governments are actively interested in sealing the tentative rapprochement with a deal under which gas-rich Israel would supply energy-hungry Turkey. Moreover, such considerations probably played a part in producing the reconciliation in the first place.
One of the latest signs was the appearance of Michael Lotem, the Israeli foreign ministry’s special energy envoy, at an oil and gas conference in Ankara this week. In one short speech and a few panel comments he made sure his message was clear: Israel’s door is open to such a deal.
He highlighted Israel and Turkey’s “long historical ties and very strong mutual interest”; dismissed any idea that political tensions could lead Ankara to shut down a pipeline between the countries, and noted that a pipeline to Turkey was “low cost when you compare it to other options” to export the gas to further flung destinations. “That is why it is being discussed,” he said.
Mr Lotem added that the region could learn from the corporate sector that “when you have a good business [opportunity] you go for it” and explicitly called for Israel to embrace an “export mix”, since, he said, the country had enough gas to supply more than one foreign market.
That suggests Israel would prefer to split the difference – for example, by having both a pipeline to Turkey and a shared liquified natural gas plant with Cyprus (a $10bn endeavour the Cypriots would be hard pressed to finance on their own) to supply markets in east Asia and elsewhere. The key decision will be made by the companies exploiting the Israeli gas fields – Noble Energy of the US and the Israeli group Delek Energy.
But the clock is ticking. The Israeli cabinet is expected to decide by mid-May how much of the gas finds should be destined for export. The two companies are also waiting for their collaboration to be cleared by the Israeli competition authority. After that it will be time to deal with potential buyers for the gas.
This may be tricky to square with the diplomatic timetable. Turkish officials do not conceal their enthusiasm for Israeli gas, which could reduce Ankara’s dependence on suppliers such as Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan, even as wider cooperation with Israel smooths relations with the US, eases intelligence collaboration on Syria and sends a message to Cyprus about the potential benefits of cooperating with Turkey.
But Taner Yildiz, Turkey’s energy minister, has repeatedly insisted any energy deal with Israel could only take place after the two countries have exchanged ambassadors. And that requires agreement on compensation (which could lead Turkey to drop the criminal cases). It also awaits a planned trip to Gaza by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey prime minister, at which time he could declare that Ankara’s stance has succeeded in getting restrictions lifted.
Pitfalls abound. Arranging trips to Gaza are no easy matter, often requiring backing by the two main Palestinian factions, and Mr Erdogan is scheduled first to visit US President Barack Obama, who brokered the initial Israeli-Turkish rapprochement.
But hope is also in strong supply. As Mr Lotem, the Israeli envoy, remarked before explicitly referring to Turkey: “Can we use energy, can we use gas, beyond the commercial value of it, in the service of politics, in the service of diplomacy? Some people say we should never even try. I say that we should.”