As the crisis in Syria aggravates and instability in the region looms, Israel has started to send warm messages, the first of which came from Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week, to Turkey in an effort to mend significantly damaged diplomatic relations. Relations between the two countries have been strained since 2010, when Israeli troops killed nine civilians of turkish origin in cold blood during a raid of the Mavi Marmara vessel in international waters as it headed to the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid supplies. Noting that restoring the once-excellent political relations is of great importance for the two countries, and the region, Netanyahu said, “Both countries should look for opportunities to achieve that.”
Speaking to a group of Turkish journalists in Jerusalem, he added: “In a region where instability reigns, Israel and Turkey are two quite stable countries. I believe in [our] common interest.” Netanyahu went on to say, drawing attention to the fact that Turks and Jews have a long history.
As it was the case for Lieberman, the Israeli prime minister also spoke to the Turkish press for the first time after the Mavi Marmara raid. And it’s also the first time, as noted by Israeli authorities, that the two politicians have spoken to the same group of journalists. “And it’s the Turkish press. That should have a significance,” the same authorities commented.
As another indication of importance Israel attaches to restoring political relations with Turkey, Netanyahu received Turkish journalists in the same room where Israel’s National Security Cabinet meets. And in the back, behind Netanyahu both Israeli and Turkish flags stood. A high-level Israeli official’s comment on the present situation in the region was revealing as to why Israel finds it necessary to mend ties with Turkey: “Now that the circumstances and interests have changed. We need to get positioned accordingly.”
It was also noteworthy that the high-level official made a point of noting that politics and public opinion are two volatile things. Speaking on the necessity of cooperation between Turkey and Israel, the official, who requested to remain anonymous, added: “The elements of the national interest are political will, public opinion and the changing circumstances. In our region, swift changes have been taking place. Circumstances may lead you to the national interest, and the national interest forms the will.”
In search of a magical formula
According to the high-level official, the two countries have been trying to find a magical formula to mend the bilateral ties, but as of yet the efforts remain fruitless. Noting that they are open to proposals from third parties regarding the magical formula, “The formula needs to not only appeal to both countries but it should also not harm the dignity of either country,” the official remarked. The Israeli official repeated their standard version of the Mavi Marmara incident, maintaining that the incident also led to trauma in Israel, but he is of the opinion that it is important for the two countries to get over the trauma at this point. “Have a look at the developments in the region and you will see Israel and Turkey have common interests,” he noted.
Answering a question about when Turkey and Israel would restart negotiations, he said: “Negotiations with Turkey have never been cut off. We still have open channels.” The official also implied that the two countries continue to share intelligence through the US. Noting that both Turkey and Israel have close ties with the US, and both countries share important information with the US, he said, “We share our concerns about chemical weapons which may get into the hands of illegitimate groups.”
Deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel, which earlier enjoyed rather good relations at all levels, started at the end of 2008 when Israel, which was on the verge of concluding a peace agreement with Syria, with Turkey acting as the mediator, suddenly bombarded the Gaza Strip in a devastating assault, eliminating all hopes for peace with Syria. Turkey probably felt deceived at the time and had the impression that its efforts to bring about peace were not given due respect by Israel. Then came the Davos summit in Switzerland in January 2009, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke out against Shimon Peres for bombarding Gaza and walked out of the forum. Then in May 2010 came the raid by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara that led to the death of nine Turkish civilians.
‘Ties with Greece developed coincidentally’
Diplomatic relations have significantly developed in the last couple of years between Israel, Greece and Greek Cyprus, a fact which seems to coincide with the deterioration of relations between Turkey and Israel. But Benjamin Netanyahu maintains that this has nothing to do with the deteriorating relations with Turkey, noting that the seed for good ties between Greece and Israel was sown four months before the Mavi Marmara incident took place. The following is the story, relayed by the prime minister, who describes it “as a really interesting story” based on the coincidence of how Israel and Greece decided to promote political relations:
“For many years we had only diplomatic relations with Greece, and with Cyprus the relationship was only at consular level. In February 2010 I went to Moscow with my wife. In the evening, we were eating at a restaurant when someone appeared and told us that [George] Papandreou wanted to come and sit with us. Certainly, I responded, and we started to talk about economic problems. In the end, we both said that all this was just silly, and decided to strengthen our relations.”