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Turkey, Israel Move Toward a Rapprochement

In this image taken from the Free Gaza Movement website on May 28, 2010, one of the Turkish ships taking part in the 'Freedom Flotilla' is seen docked prior to heading for the shores off the Gaza Strip in this recent but undated photo.

There is growing evidence that Turkey and Israel may be on the brink of a historic handshake Both sides recalled their ambassadors after Israeli security forces killed nine Turks who were trying to break Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza in 2010. The latest diplomatic efforts come as Ankara increasingly finds itself isolated in the region over its support for Syrian rebels.

Turkish and Israeli media reported that the two sides held a high level diplomatic meeting this week on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Kadri Gursel, a political columnist for the Al-Monitor website, says with Turkey at odds with its southern neighbors over its support for Syrian rebels, who may be facing defeat, Ankara has become dangerously isolated.

"Ankara now badly needs Israel, it shows how desperate Ankara is. Because bashing Israel was used as a political tool in 2009 , 2010 and onwards by Ankara to return to the region. Now they desperately need to have normal relations with ... Israel," said Gursel.

Turkey’s Islamist-rooted AK Party had been one of Israel's most strident critics, even reportedly providing sanctuary to prominent Hamas members. Turkish-Israeli relations have been frozen since the 2010 killing of Turkish activists seeking to break Israel’s sea embargo of Gaza.

But Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, says with Tel Aviv apologizing for the incident and close to reaching a compensation agreement over the slain activists, both sides are working hard to reach a compromise on Ankara’s final demand - that the Gaza embargo be lifted.

"I think its an almost done deal, except for the Gaza embargo - the Israelis won't lift it. I suppose they are scrambling to find a formula whereby the Israelis can claim OK, we have not lifted the embargo and the Turks can claim,well, we’ve poked a hole in it . Maybe Turks will gain privileged access to Gaza and do some humanitarian work, some construction and all that," said Ozel.

In a sign of improving relations, a billion-dollar deal was struck last month between Turkish and Israeli energy companies to develop and distribute Israel’s recently discovered huge gas reserves. Ankara is eyeing those reserves to help it reduce dependence on Russian energy supplies. Ankara and Moscow remain at odds over Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane along Turkish-Syrian border last November.

Ankara is also concerned about Moscow's deepening relations with regional rival Iran, and fear of a resurgent Iran is another factor driving Turkish-Israeli rapprochement efforts. Ozel says this is part of wider regional process.

"Remember that the common challenge, threat, is Iran. And Iran is returning to the fold: the embargo has been lifted, Iran is going to normalize its relations with the rest of the world, by and large. And this is a matter of concern at varying degrees for Saudi Arabia, Israel Turkey and Egypt. Therefore ... those four countries are ... at least at some degree of harmony with one another," he said.

Observers say Ankara is aware improvement of ties with Israel, as part of a wider alliance against Tehran, could help repair its battered image in Washington, especially if it opens is doors to support from the powerful Israeli lobby in the United States.