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Israel's new man in Ankara could be in for bumpy ride

The choice of prominent diplomat Eitan Naeh as Israel’s ambassador to Turkey is a clear sign of the importance his government places on fixing the relationship, but though he's being magnanimously received in Turkey, he'll have his hands full clearing the path to normalization.

Israel’s newly named ambassador to Ankara likely heaved a sigh of relief as he perused the headlines in Turkey on Nov. 16. The virulently anti-Semitic Yeni Safak recorded Eitan Naeh’s appointment on its front page in determinedly neutral prose.

Islamist newspapers such as Yeni Akit and Dirilis Postasi ignored the news altogether, a telling silence indicating that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s militant base has digested his decision to end six years of diplomatic froideur with Israel.

The choice of Naeh, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan and is currently the No. 2 at the Israeli mission in London, is an unmistakable sign of the importance his government places on fixing the relationship.

Naeh is counted among the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s finest and has been at the forefront of a quiet campaign to reach out to Muslim countries that continue to shun the Jewish state. Naeh also served in Ankara in the 1990s and left a very positive mark.

Ties between the former allies crumbled when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara ship as it sought to break Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip. Turkish activists were killed on board, triggering widespread outrage and the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador from Turkey.

Washington has lobbied hard for its closest regional allies to mend fences. The first breakthrough came when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his then-Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at US President Barack Obama’s behest and apologized for the Mavi Marmara affair.

The sides have since agreed on a compensation package for the victims, the shelving of Turkish legal claims against the perpetrators and Turkish access to the Ashdod port in Gaza. Turkey has also withdrawn its veto of cooperation between NATO and Israel.

Most observers agree that pragmatism is the main driver of the thaw. The Turkish-Israeli alliance allowed both countries greater influence in the region. For example, when Turkey threatened military action against Syria over its harboring of the now-imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998, while the bond with Israeli was at its peak, Syria, mindful of potential trouble with Israel, instantly booted him out. Today, Israel and Turkey are both unnerved by Iran’s rising influence in their respective backyards and could use each other's support.

Friendly relations with Israel also helped Turkey score brownie points among influential American congressmen in the past and will surely help Ankara curry favor with President-elect Donald Trump, who is a big promoter of Israel. And even while political ties were frozen, business ties between Turkey and Israel continued to expand.

Last week, Yuval Steinitz became the first Israeli minister to visit Turkey since 2010 for talks with Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak about a gas pipeline that would carry offshore Israeli gas from the Mediterranean Sea to Turkey and on to Europe. Energy cooperation is a risk-free way to reboot the relationship and offers greater access to Erdogan. Albayrak is married to Erdogan’s eldest daughter, Esra, and is widely seen as second to the Turkish president in influence.

Still, Israel’s man in Ankara may be in for a bumpy ride. For one, Turkey has yet to fulfill Israel’s demands that it expel members of Hamas’ military wing from its borders.

“Although this promise has been part of the normalization deal with Israel, it amounts to Turkey’s recognition of the distinction between Hamas’ political and military wings — a distinction Ankara is not too eager to make,” observed Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Erdemir speculated that as a compromise, Turkey might tell a few high-profile Hamas figures to relocate to close ally Qatar. “Such a sleight of hand, however, might not suffice to stop Israel’s complaints that Turkey is not fully implementing its part of the deal,” he concluded.

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