On the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a private meeting with Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz. It was the highest level contact between Israel and Turkey since diplomatic relations broke down six years ago after Israeli forces raided a Turkish ship bound for Gaza, killing 10 Turkish activists.
The meeting, which lasted 20 to 30 minutes and whose details have not been previously disclosed, discussed the war in Syria, Iran’s presence there, terrorism – and natural gas. That last item is a key driver of efforts to forge a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey: At stake are reserves of natural gas worth hundreds of billions of dollars under the waters of Israel and Cyprus. To exploit them Israel will likely require the cooperation of Turkey.
In an interview at his office in Jerusalem, Steinitz confirmed the Washington meeting. “It was in a very good atmosphere,” he said. “I don’t want to say more than that … I’m a great proponent of this effort to resume diplomatic relations with Turkey.”
Since the Washington meeting, high-level envoys from Turkey and Israel have talked privately in Geneva and London to hammer out a deal on restoring relations between the former allies. Discussions have at times become bogged down: Israel wants Turkey to cut ties with Hamas representatives based in Turkey; Ankara wants reassurances on providing aid to Palestinians in Gaza, among other things.
A senior Turkish official said he was not aware of the meeting and said it would have been outside normal protocol for a president to meet a minister.
Overall, though, Israeli officials believe an agreement can be reached in the coming weeks.
“We have resolved 80 to 90 percent of the difficulties, or gaps, and now with a little bit of goodwill and flexibility on both sides we can reach the remaining items,” Steinitz said. “I think we are pretty close (to normalizing relations).”
There have also been positive noises from Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on June 7 that Ankara was “one or two meetings away” from normalizing ties with Israel. However, he did not put a time frame on the process.