The Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) paid a visit to Haifa Feb. 15-17 to conduct a joint training exercise. Turkey, which for a long time had been vetoing NATO’s cooperation with Israel, has withdrawn its objection and is now debating sending a naval vessel to Israeli ports as part of a NATO mission in order to normalize relations.
Turkey had begun vetoing NATO-Israeli cooperation as a measure against Israel after a crisis in 2010 over the Mavi Marmara incident, in which a humanitarian aid flotilla headed for Gaza to break Israel’s blockade was raided by Israeli naval forces, resulting in the death of 10 activists and creating a bitter adversity between the two countries, which had traditionally enjoyed close ties.
The NATO mission to Israel, in which the Spanish, Italian and Greek naval vessels took part, revealed that Turkey had lifted its veto back in 2015 and that the joint drills with Israel had been carried out for the last five years. While the Defense Ministry has been trying to keep the exercises secret, defense expert Fatih Yurtsever says a second constructive step is next — the visit by a Turkish warship to Israeli ports as part of a NATO mission.
Joint training not participated in by Turkey
The arrival of NATO ships in the Port of Haifa was followed by a joint Passing Exercise (PASSEX). The Turkish vessel in the group, the TCG Gaziantep, left SNMG2 without going to Haifa and returned to Turkey’s Aksaz naval base. According to the website of NATO’s Marine Command, the TCG Kemalreis will join the group upon the completion of PASSEX.
While Turkey withdrew its veto on Israel, it avoided visiting the Israeli port to signal that relations are not yet back to normal.
According to Yurtsever, the tensions between Ankara and Washington, Turkey’s efforts to break apart a coalition formed against it in the eastern Mediterranean and the fact that Turkey is the most economical route for the transport of Israel’s natural gas to international markets have heightened the expectations for a normalization of ties and prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to take small steps towards rapprochement.
Normalization a card for Turkey on NATO summit
The dispute over Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system was one of the most significant items on the agenda of this week’s NATO meeting of defense ministers in Brussels. Ankara in return has planned a normalization with Israel.
Last week, information leaked to the media from presidential sources confirmed that the two countries could kick off bilateral diplomatic talks in March. Mesut Hakkı Caşın, a member of the Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Board, said if Israel took a positive step, Turkey was prepared to take two. Caşın also said it could be possible for Ankara to appoint an ambassador to Tel Aviv in March.
In late 2020 the two countries fell on the same side of a military escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkish and Israeli drones provided intelligence to Azerbaijan in its fight against Armenian forces.