Senior Israeli Diplomat Yuval Rotem Explains Israel’s Bright Relations with Turkey

Yuval Rotem is a senior diplomat and he was the previous Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel. After Turkey released the Israeli couple arrested for allegedly spying and the palace photos, I decided to do an interview with him to review the relationship between the two countries.

In August 2016, just six years after the Mavi Marmara incident, Israel and Turkey signed a deal to normalize diplomatic relations. “A strong energy deal that would facilitate Israel’s natural-gas exports to Europe and bolster Turkey’s position as an energy hub in the region was signed.” As Rotem describes in the interview.

“Turkey has contributed greatly in limiting the ability of Palestinian groups. They pushed the political wing of Hamas to take sides against the Syrian regime and even to take up arms against it in some cases during the Syrian civil war. We want Turkey to replace Iran in supporting Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Their support of these groups is purely politically and cultural, and Turkey has pledged not to provide Hamas with any weapons.” Yuval told me in the interview.

But when it comes to the relations that are not talked about regularly, he says “However, there are factors that have boosted bilateral relations without being very much publicized. For instance, Israel’s role in the Southeastern Anatolia Project.

After the Mavi Marmara incident relations between the two countries were weekend, do you think that the arrest of two Israeli citizens is the aftershock of that conflict?

In my opinion it’s true that the Mavi Marmara incident had an impact on the political atmosphere but if you look closely, you’ll see that Turkey actually was in need of such a crisis in order to induce to the Muslim world that it is confronting Israel. We had no problem with that of course as long as it didn’t hurt our strategic and economic goals. I can’t confirm but there were rumors back then that there was an agreement behind the scenes. They wanted us to inflame the situation to silence critics of their deep relations with the state of Israel.

However, just six years after the incident a strong energy deal that would facilitate Israel’s natural-gas exports to Europe and bolster Turkey’s position as an energy hub in the region was signed. However, there are factors that have boosted bilateral relations without being very much publicized. For instance, Israel’s role in the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP).

We must take under consideration that Turkey seeks to revive the Great Ottoman Empire and gain authority over the Middle East countries, and in this regard, it faces a major barrier called Pan-Arabism, especially the inherent contradiction between Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Turkey’s influence in Arab countries.

What would Israel achieve in return?

Turkey has contributed greatly in limiting the ability of Palestinian groups. They pushed the political wing of Hamas to take sides against the Syrian regime and even to take up arms against it in some cases during the Syrian civil war. We want Turkey to replace Iran in supporting Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Their support of these groups is purely politically and cultural, and Turkey has pledged not to provide Hamas with any weapons.

Turkey’s level of confrontation with Israel has never been deep and hostile. There has been a political, cultural, economic and sometimes religious challenge, which I think is normal.

Both governments understand that without one another they will face many dangers in the region. But as I said it is a part of the game when Erdogan speaks against us in the media. whereas, he gets closer and closer to us in important geopolitical challenges.

Additionally, both countries want to alleviate the humanitarian conditions in Iraq and have common interests in Syria and Azerbaijan. So, there are many areas where we are working together especially in these three countries.

One other example is the improved UAE-Turkey relations, which you have heard in the news. This was one of Tel Aviv’s successes in recent months. Indeed, nothing is for free, especially in politics.

You talked about the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP). Can you explain what this project is and what the role of Israel is in it? Many activists claim that with the implementation of this mega project, Iraq has faced a major water shortage crisis, and Baghdad will be forced to give Ankara a barrel of oil for a barrel of water.

The project area covers nine Turkish provinces which are located in the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris and in Upper Mesopotamia. The total cost of the project is over 100 billion Turkish lira and it aims to raise incomes and living standards.

Our role is clear, this mega project needs our experience in engineering capabilities, consultancy and human resources in different areas. Especially when it comes to the construction of dams and the water industry.

Not only was our participation important to our economy, but we also achieved many strategic goals through our consultations to our friends in Turkey. It’s not in our interest that savage governments like those in Iraq and Syria have control over the Euphrates and Tigris. We must have a leverage and what’s better than having control over their water resources? The best way to control the rivers was to build dams and that’s what we did in Turkey.

I guess you are not worried about possible environmental catastrophes in the future then, actually the amount of water in the downstream of both the Euphrates and Tigris has decreased in a terrible way and it has affected the agriculture of Syria and Iraq severely.

There are consequences for everything. We are willing to help whoever needs our high-tech agriculture industry. We are also ready to sell drinkable water to countries that lack enough drinkable water. 

 Yuval Rotem, in front of a photograph of the city of Jerusalem, at the Foreign Ministry. Photo: Aluf Benn

We have very good relations with Azerbaijan. With that in mind, do you think that a trilateral relationship between Israel, Turkey and Azerbaijan is essential?

Turkey’s territorial connection to Azerbaijan can be its biggest economic score.  Because Turkey has the potential to connect the Mediterranean coast to the Caspian Sea. So, this alone shows the importance of this trilateral relationship. This connection will tighten Iran’s security and military blockade.

But as you know Amenia is in the middle of this road. Turkey and Azerbaijan are recognized as foes to the Armenians and Russia is considered as their great supporter. Is it possible that one day the border between Iran and Armenia falls in the hands of Azerbaijan and Turkey?    

Armenia is in a state of disintegration and can’t resist Erdogan’s will. I hope that by the end of 2022 turkey’s territorial connection to Azerbaijan will be accomplished. Tel Aviv and Ankara are ready to make big concessions to Russia in order to make this happen.

As the last but not the least question I want to ask you about the conflict between Turkey and Greece on Cyprus. What is the position of the State of Israel?

Turkey’s differences with Greece have intensified over the past months, in this conflict we have more of a mediating role. Of course, Erdogan’s ambitions and energy disputes in the Mediterranean should not lead to a military conflict, and we have explicitly issued this warning to Ankara. Of course, we are aware of the details of the extensive financial, security and military interactions between Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia with Greece, and this has been very effective in controlling Erdogan.

According to the official data of the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜIK), Turkish Exporters Assembly, Central Bank (CBRT) and Israel, Turkey exported $4.7 billion to Israel in 2020, ranking the country ninth on the list of consumers of Turkish exports in the same year.

In the first four months of 2021, Turkey’s exports to Israel increased by 35 percent to $1.8 billion compared to the same period last year, and Israel became the eighth country in Turkey’s exports.

In 2011, Turkey’s exports to Israel were $2.4 billion, and Israel ranked 17th in Turkey’s exports.

In 2002, when Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, Turkey’s exports to Israel were $850 million annually. This figure has increased by 4.5 times over 18 years.

Turkey’s import from Israel was $1.5 billion in 2020. The foreign trade volume between Turkey and Israel was $6.2 billion in the same year. The volume in question has increased by 3.4 times in 18 years.

In 2020, Turkey ranked fourth in the total imports of Israel with 6.2 percent followed by China, the United States and Germany.

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