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Israel opens NATO mission as relations with Turkey thaw

Israel will open a NATO mission at alliance headquarters. Closer cooperation between the Jewish state and NATO had been blocked by a feud between Turkey and Israel, which are now on the cusp of normalizing relations.

Israel has been an active partner of NATO for 20 years, but closer ties have been held up by opposition from Turkey, a NATO member.

Meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at alliance headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the mission would help to enhance cooperation between NATO and Israel.

"Increasing the level of cooperation between NATO and Israel, as well as with our other Mediterranean Dialogue partners, is essential," Stoltenberg said, referring to a security forum that brings together Israel, NATO and Arab nations that the Jewish state does not have formal relations with.

"The violence and instability that has gripped the Middle East and North Africa in recent years is a clear threat to the security of all our nations," Stoltenberg said.

Rivlin said opening the mission "will help Israel and NATO in strengthening our cooperation and our good relations. It will help us share best practices and information."

Israel is expected to share intelligence with NATO, as well as offer expertise on cybersecurity.

The opening of an Israeli mission at NATO headquarters had been held up by Turkey, which has the second-largest army in the alliance.

Though they once were close regional allies, Ankara and Jerusalem fell out after a 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara aid ship, which was trying to break a blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Nine Turkish citizens and a dual Turkish-American national were killed in the incident.

Turkey recalibrates

The diplomatic fallout from the raid led to a shift in geopolitical alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean, as Turkey sought a more robust and interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East.

Yet now, Ankara's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy is increasingly in disarray, as the country finds itself diplomatically isolated on all fronts.

Relations with Russia are tense following the shooting down of a Russian warplane last year, its backing of Syrian rebels has backfired, and Syrian Kurds allied to rebel Kurds in Turkey are building a de facto autonomous region on its southern border under the cover of US support. Meanwhile, there is no end in sight to the conflict in Syria as it continues to spill across the border.

Some analysts believe outreach to Israel is part of a recalibration of Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East and a hedge against instability.

Years of on-and-off diplomatic talks have failed to reach a rapprochement, but both sides have now indicated they are close to normalizing relations.

Turkey is demanding compensation for the victims of the 2010 raid and an apology, both of which Israel has reportedly agreed to, but a major sticking point remains the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Turkey is demanding that Israel lift the blockade on the Hamas-controlled strip.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Tuesday "definitive progress" on normalization had been made but "the agreement has not reached a final point."

"There are three things we have kept saying since the very beginning: apology, compensation and easing or totally lifting of the blockade on Gaza," he told the private NTV television, saying Gaza had become an "open prison."

cw/bk (AFP, AP)

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