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July 29, 2012, Sunday

The future of Turkish-Israeli relations

It is still not clear how long the fall of the Assad regime will take. But the battle in Aleppo is certainly part of a bloody last phase. Sooner or later a post-Assad Syria will emerge. The unraveling of Syria has major implications for the balance of power in the Middle East. Turkey's position in Syria and the tension this position implies in Ankara's relations with Teheran is part of this new configuration. Given these dramatic dynamics reshaping the region, it is quite disturbing that Turkey and Israel have been unable to put their differences behind them in order to look at the big picture emerging in the Arab world. After all, these two democratic countries still share common interests and have a lot at stake in the post-Assad dynamics of Syria.

The inability of Israel to apologize to Turkey because of the Mavi Marmara incident shows that the divergence between Israel and Turkey is becoming chronic and structural. There is no sense of urgency and priority in Turkey and Israel for attempts at normalization. More than the flotilla incident of May 2010, the origins of the crisis between Turkey and Israel go back to the Israeli army's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which started in late December 2008. Operation Cast Lead put a halt to Turkey's intense mediation efforts between Israel and Syria and led to strong Turkish condemnation of Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the Gaza offensive as a personal affront. It is very telling that Erdoğan and many high-level Turkish officials have numerous times repeated that only a couple days before the Gaza operation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Ankara, where he was negotiating intensely and getting closer to a major breakthrough with Damascus, thanks to Turkish mediation.

But the way Turkish officials continue to react to the timing of Operation Cast Lead -- by taking it as a betrayal of Turkey's mediation efforts -- also shows that Ankara has a very poor understanding of Israeli strategic culture. In many ways, Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu considered that nothing could be more important for Israel than a peace treaty with Syria and Turkey's friendly mediation in achieving that result. They misjudged Israel's threat perception and the priority attached to the defense of Israeli homeland against various attacks emanating from Gaza. In the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, Erdoğan's clash with Shimon Peres at Davos in January 2009, where he walked off the stage in anger symbolized a new stage in the crisis. Davos clearly illustrated Turkey's willingness to see the Palestinian issue and the Gaza offensive as a deal breaker in relations with Israel. A few months later, the media sensation was further fuelled by the public humiliation of the Turkish ambassador in Israel by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in an attempt to protest an anti-Israeli TV series that was aired in Turkey. It is important to place the May 2010 flotilla incident in this broader context of an already rapidly deteriorating Turkish-Israeli relationship. Once the flotilla incident happened, it overshadowed other pending issues, and things went from bad to worse.

It is also important to put the current divergence between Turkey and Israel in a historical context. To be sure, the situation today stands in sharp contrast to where relations were in the 1990s -- the so-called golden age of the partnership. Yet, let's not forget that this partnership was never a strategic alliance, but at best a relationship of convenience, for which, at least in Turkey, there never was much popular support. It was rooted in Turkey's need for better relations with the United States, support for Turkey's positions in Congress, especially regarding the Armenian genocide question, access to weapons, balancing Syria when the latter harbored in Damascus the leader of the long-running Kurdish insurgency. Both countries also benefited from the economic cooperation, which continues to this day.

Finally one more observation about today: The fact that Netanyahu did not replace his foreign minister after Kadima joined the coalition in May 2012 was perceived by Turkey as a clear sign that he is not interested in normalization with Ankara. Netanyahu's decision to keep Avigdor Lieberman in place reflects the ascending power of the religious right in Israeli political demography as well as the importance of co-opting the far right for the Likud Party. Given similar dynamics in Turkey -- with a Justice and Development Party (AKP) government that follows populist and nationalist policies that seem in line with the societal inclinations of the country -- it is clear that it will take the better part of a decade for both sides to overcome their differences.

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