As the international flotilla of 11 vessels prepares to sail once more to Gaza after a year, today or tomorrow, the humanitarian action coincides paradoxically with a new page unfolding between Israel and Turkey.
First, it must be noted that the naval humanitarian action is bound to be a critical test for Israel to show the world that it respects the global critique symbolized by peaceful efforts to bring aid to the suffering, and that it reacts responsibly and with outmost restraint with regard to the people on board.
Last year's bloody incident clearly bordered on being a barbarian act, which put a crucial democracy in the region in the corner of shame, no matter how strongly it facilitated its global mechanisms to legitimize the killing of civilians in international waters. Let us hope that common sense prevails this time, throughout.
As a result of last year's incident, relations between Turkey and Israel, two key powers and open democracies and key allies in the region, came to the brink of collapse. This could, as I wrote in some columns at that time, only be seen as profoundly unfortunate for both, and, objectively, was a result of a number of incidents of erratic behavior by Israeli governments. The main breach was Ehud Olmert's deliberately keeping Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “out of the loop” with regard to Israel's plan of operations in Gaza while both met, and this disrespectfulness led -- rather understandably -- to the “one minute” incident in Davos. Thereafter, one thing led to another. Arrogance coupled with a sense of impunity would hit a wall in the case of Israel vs. Turkey, and it did.
But, the wisdom is that without a stable, consistent, trusting relationship between the two countries, the entire region is doomed to live in turmoil and under the threat of large-scale war. There are severe problems to be resolved before further radicalization, and Israel needs Turkey's pragmatist, globalist, “soft power” type of approach, symbolized by the ruling, post-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK Party), more than any other country.
“It seems that no country is as friendly to Israel as Turkey, and not only in the Middle East. Turkey is also the only Muslim country that maintains full -- one could even say ideal -- relations with Israel. The relationship involves more than the billions of dollars exchanged between the two countries through private and governmental trade agreements, or the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who view Turkey as almost an Israeli leisure destination. Turkey's relationship to Israel is based on a worldview that sees the Jewish state as an example not only of success, but also of historic loyalties that date back to the relationship between the Jews and the Ottoman Empire,” wrote the respected Haaretz daily in its powerful editorial yesterday.
It stressed several important points, like the following: “Israel can consider it an achievement that Turkey's relationship with countries like Iran and Syria has not come at the expense of its relationship with Israel, and that Turkey has continued to disregard the demands of Arab countries that it cool its relationship with Israel.”
And, this: “…the Turkish government is bound by the opinion of the public that elected it. That same public opposes the war with Iraq and sees Israeli soldiers on television destroying Palestinian homes. Accordingly, when Turkey's leadership criticizes Israeli policies and considers calling its ambassador back for consultations and raising the rank of its diplomatic mission in East Jerusalem, Israel should sit up and take notice.”
And, finally, the call for a new phase: “Turkey is not threatening to cut off relations with Israel. It stresses that a distinction must be made between the state and the people of Israel, on one hand, and the policy of Israel's government, on the other. But Turkey is calling on its old friend to look around and beware of the implications of a policy that has gone awry.”
To these strong arguments for a new page one must add that a stronger Turkey stands as a more credible “carrier” of the peace process than a weaker Egypt, which due to the domestic situation is inward looking, both before Israel and the Arab world in general. Both sides must be commended for the restraint they have shown and all the recent steps and gestures to turn a new page. This is a historic opportunity that should not be wasted. But, friends must know when to apologize and make it up to each other. Given the severity of last year's Gaza incident, Israel must in a civilized manner -- as the act becomes a true democracy it represents -- issue an apology and pay reparations to the victims' families. This shall not vilify its value, reputation and credibility; on the contrary, it would restore what was damaged.