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September 05, 2011, Monday

Deciphering Israel’s behavior

Certain crises are predictable. Turkey’s decision to expel Israel’s ambassador to Ankara and to downgrade relations to second secretary level falls in this category of predictability.

It was clear from the very beginning that there would be a price to pay for Israel in the absence of an apology for the 2010 storming of the Mavi Marmara and the killing of nine Turkish citizens. Israel decided not to apologize and it knew that relations would hit rock bottom as a result.

The question we should be asking is simple: why did Israel decide not to apologize to Turkey? After all, there were many reasons that could have convinced the Israeli government to swallow its pride. Needless to say, Turkey was a crucially important strategic partner for Israel. As the only Muslim country in the region with which Israel had a military partnership agreement, Turkey provided an open air space for the training of the Israeli air force, a lucrative market for the Israeli defense industry and a fellow democratic partner that shared a similar “security-first” strategic culture. Israel earned hundreds of millions of dollars from sales of military hardware to Turkey, including surface-to-air missiles and drones, and it has upgraded Turkish tanks and fighter jets.

There are other, contextual factors that could have convinced the Israeli government to apologize. At a time when the Arab Spring is rapidly changing the region, it looked like Israel needed Turkey more than ever. The loss of Egypt with the ousting of the Mubarak regime was a major strategic blow for Tel Aviv. After having lost Egypt was Israel willing to also lose Turkey? Wasn’t Israel condemning itself to total isolation in the region? In many ways, this was the question Washington was asking Tel Aviv. It is widely known that American diplomacy tried very hard to avoid this crisis. As Washington pressured Israel to swallow its pride, it was also asking Turkey for some more time.

At the end of the day Israel decided not to apologize not because of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s stubbornness or Benjamin Netanyahu’s difficult domestic situation and sliding popularity. To be sure, factors related to domestic politics and the need to save face played a certain role. Yet, the real reason behind Israeli behavior is very simple. Tel Aviv decided that the apology would not solve problems with Turkey. According to the strategic assessment in Israel, it seemed that the relationship with Turkey was broken beyond repair. An apology would have allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to declare victory without really changing the structural flaws that have emerged in the bilateral partnership since 2006. The fact that Turkey was not only demanding an apology and compensation but also an end to the embargo over Gaza is very telling for the Israelis. This showed that normalization with Turkey was almost impossible as long as the Turkish government indexed its relations with Tel Aviv not just to bilateral factors but also to the Palestinian question. In that sense, from the Israeli perspective, Turkey set the bar too high. As a result, the Netanyahu government came to the conclusion that, even in the aftermath of an apology that would have been quite costly in terms of Israeli domestic politics, there was no return to the golden age of Turkish-Israeli strategic relations in the 1990s.

At the end of the day, Tel Aviv, seems to have realized that normalization with Turkey will remain elusive in the absence of a genuine peace process. What made the golden age with Turkey possible in the 1990s were the Oslo Peace Process and a Palestinian entity that was in serious negotiations with Tel Aviv. Turkey was also much weaker and needed Israeli support in the 1990s. Today, the picture both in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and at the regional level -- with the absence of a peace process with Palestinians -- is radically different. All these factors should help us understand why Israel believed a mere apology would not have changed the worsening structural dynamics in Turkish-Israeli relations. History may well remember the 1990s as an anomaly rather than the norm in the relations of these two countries.

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