“If there is a peace process initiated soon, it will make it easier for both parties to sit together and rebuild trust,” said Lapidot-Firilla, senior research fellow and director of the Mediterranean neighbors unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
The prospect of reaching an early settlement to the long-running conflict is seen as low, but the US administration under President Barack Obama is determined to restart the talks that broke down more than a year ago.
‘We still have good channels between the two societies. There is no need for formal mediation, but we need to understand that the relations are not improving and are not going to improve soon unless either the Turkish foreign policies change and rhetoric against Israel is in proportion, or Israel changes its policies toward the Palestinians. If there is a peace process initiated soon, it will make it easier for both parties to sit together and rebuild trust’
Indeed, Turkey’s relations with Israel have always been tentative because of the Palestine question, but this started to change in the mid 1990s when the Oslo peace process, aimed at the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was still alive.
Answering our questions for Monday Talk, Lapidot-Firilla expanded on the intricacies of Turkish-Israeli relations, which have seen the eruption of a crisis.
Do you see any signs indicating an improvement in Turkish-Israeli relations?
Not at the moment because they have conflicting interests.
Would you elaborate?
Both countries see themselves as policing the region. Turkey has an interest in becoming a pivotal country in the region, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and other regions -- such as Central Asia, the Caucasus and in the West in Bosnia and Herzegovina -- and it has convinced itself that it cannot allow itself to have good relations with Israel while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going on. One of the reasons for this approach is the wish to become a moral leader of the Muslim world and the turning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a symbolic one. Israelis, on the other hand, have always seen Turkey as a positive factor in the region. Politicians from all sides would like to have close relations with Turkey. At the moment they feel betrayed by Turkey’s policies and harsh rhetoric. Israeli interests are to push Turkey away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Turkey is interested in helping Hamas and breaking the blockades on Gaza. It is less interested in having relations with Fatah and helping to build a strong Fatah-led Palestinian authority. There are contradictions between the policies of the two states, and I don’t think that is going to change soon.
When do you think the strain in the relations started, with the Turkish prime minister’s walkout from a panel in Davos?
The Davos walkout was not a turning point in relations. The year 2002, when the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party came to power, was a turning point, maybe not in terms of foreign policy in general because Turkish foreign policy started to change during the [former foreign minister] İsmail Cem period. However, the relations between Turkey and Israel started to change when the AK Party came to power. Later, the Israelis started to ask how come [Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan was willing to accept [Omar] al-Bashir from Sudan, where there is a genocide going on, but on the other hand, is not willing to visit to Israel when there is a conflict between the two nations. This is how the Israeli side sees it.
‘We may be facing the last chance for the peace process’
How much chance do you give to the revival of the peace process considering it is facing hardships even before it starts?
Unfortunately, we are in a situation in which the Palestinian Authority is weak and the Palestinians are divided between Hamas and Fatah. On the Israeli side, people are losing hope. Israel is a pluralistic society, but on the Palestinian issue the majority of the Israelis find it too difficult to trust Palestinians. Many of the Israelis want to see a two-state solution, but not all. It’s becoming harder and we may be facing the last chance for the peace process.
The US administration is now trying to launch indirect talks between the two sides, but this new effort had a setback as Israel announced plans to build some 1,600 homes in contested East Jerusalem. Do you think Israel will reconsider its plans to build more homes even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would not? And a few months ago, Israel announced it would freeze new settlements in the West Bank due to mostly American pressure, what do you think was the reason for announcing the new settlements, especially during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden, drawing unusually blunt condemnation from Washington?
I am not an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but I personally would like to see a change in Israeli policies, more sympathy to the harsh conditions in which the Palestinians are living, regardless of the discussion on the rights and faults of the two sides. Even if Jews have the right to live in places like Hebron and to worship in some areas that fall under Palestinian territory, they must understand that exercising these rights is not possible nowadays. They should respect the rights of all of us to live in peace and security.
‘Israel-Azerbaijan relations are getting better’
What would you say about Israel’s growing relations with Azerbaijan?
There is a growing common interest between the two states; they are getting better and it shouldn’t be at the expense of other countries. There is no threat to anybody.
Is it possible to expect a constructive role from Israel in regards to solving the Karabakh problem?
I doubt it. There are better brokers than Israel. However, this is a positive development, and as more engagements between countries in the region are being tied, the stronger this net of security and peace will be.
Would Turkey’s polices toward Israel be different if there was another party in power?
It’s a good question because things have changed globally. The European Union would like to be an actor in the region, and Turkey is no longer exclusively part of the American arena but also part of the EU arena and part of the Muslim non-alignment arena. That is something which would influence Turkish foreign policy, even if the [Republican People’s Party] CHP or other parties were in power. In that sense, the Israeli policies toward the Palestinians would have also brought other Turkish politicians, not necessarily the AK Party, to the point of severe criticism of Israel. Still, it would not have been on the same level and the partnership would have continued. Now there is no “strategic” partnership between the two states.
There is also a debate about how the relations can be put back on track. Some people argue that if Israel is willing to accept Turkey’s role as facilitator for the Israel-Syria talks again, then the relations might have a chance to survive. Is that a possibility?
There is always a possibility, mainly because you cannot anticipate what Israeli politicians will do. There are different interest groups and different opinions, but I don’t think any of them think that Turkey can really mediate. But some of them might suggest that it would not hurt, so even if there is not any achievement, there will not be any losses, either. Turkey can be some type of a facilitator, but chances for this are slim at the moment because there is deep mistrust. When you mediate, you hold important documents and information in your hands. Turkey has to be perceived as an honest broker. Since Turkish foreign policy has highlighted its Islamic aspects, it is a party that has its own interests and cannot mediate.
‘Time to build a civilian common agenda between Turkey-Israel’
Do you think Turkey and Israel need mediation? Could relations deteriorate even further?
We still have good channels between the two societies. There is no need for formal mediation, but we need to understand that the relations are not improving and are not going to improve soon unless either the Turkish foreign policies change and rhetoric against Israel is in proportion, or Israel changes its policies toward the Palestinians. If there is a peace process initiated soon, it will make it easier for both parties to sit together and rebuild trust.
What were Israel’s failures or shortcomings regarding the Turkey-Israel relations?
The major shortcoming was the inability to read the changes in Turkey on time. We speak different languages; we concentrate too much on etiquette and rhetoric. The Israelis cannot see the relevance of their relationship with the Palestinians in the Turkish arena. Turkey is seen as a country in the region, an important one, but nevertheless one more unit in this puzzle that creates the region, while Turkey no longer sees itself in that sense. This is something the Israelis couldn’t understand at the beginning.
How do you think Turkey sees itself in the region?
There is an element of imperialism and over-importance in Turkey’s self-perception. At the same time, there is also an element of provinciality vis-a-vis the Western world. Turkey’s new elite is trying to compensate for years of being marginalized by projecting itself as a moral leader, an economic leader and a pivotal country that the world should recognize. However, this is not realistic.
What do you think Israel would do differently if it had seen the changes in Turkey?
I am going to leave that to foreign policy strategists. The only recommendation I have for Israeli foreign policy makers is not to react to the rhetoric; otherwise, you will be dragged into worse relationships. We should be more mature and not do the thing that Danny Ayalon did to the Turkish ambassador. It was immature and embarrassing for most Israelis.
Do you also think that the military aspect of the relationship was stressed too much?
I think so. The partnership was mainly based on the Israeli defense industry’s relationship with the Turkish military. Apparently, it is time to build a civilian common agenda on different issues.
Is Turkey flirting with radical Islam?
One issue that has been debated by observers is whether or not Turkey is flirting with radical Islam. What is your take on the subject?
There is not one characteristic which defines Turkish Islam, there is an “Islamic basket” in Turkey, and you can see influences from the region. We can say that Turkey is flirting with radical streams, but also with others. On the one hand, you have the influence of Fethullah Gülen, the market-friendly model; on the other hand, you have influence from Iran coming in through the writings of Ali Shariati and others. This religious basket includes also an Asian, perhaps Malaysian, influence. There is not one thing that characterizes the Islamic approach in Turkey. There is a supermarket of ideas, and there are many kinds of Islamic models on the shelf. If there is one thing that characterizes the Islamic approach here, it is this picture, which makes it difficult for researchers to identify what Turkish Islam is.
Dr. Anat Lapidot-Firilla
concentrates on contemporary Turkish history
She is a senior research fellow and director of the Mediterranean neighbors unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. She teaches at the department of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research focuses on the eastern Mediterranean with an emphasis on contemporary Turkish history.
Another idea debated is whether or not Turkey is going backward by having close relations with the countries of the Middle East.
The question is what serves Turkey best. I don’t think going toward the Middle East is going backwards. If you think, however, going toward the Middle East will bring you peace, “zero problems” and economic prosperity, you should think twice. Definitely, the products that are produced in Turkey are more suitable for the Middle Eastern market than the European and the United States markets. Economic policies in that regard are very important. This has been the vision of [Israel’s President] Shimon Peres, and [Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu is implementing it. We should also not forget that Turkey is a candidate country to the EU. And the more Middle East you go, the less chances there are for entering Europe. You have to balance your policies to make sure that your affiliation with NATO and the EU is viewed as sincere and do not forget that you have a serious mission in front of you regarding countries like Cyprus and other areas. You have to address your own problems with the EU and not run away to other places, attempting to create alternatives to avoid the serious challenges that you’re facing.
What would you say for Israel in that regard? Can it become a member of the Arab League one day?
Israel should also understand that it is in the Middle East, we are part of the Euro-Med region, but we are also part of the Arab world. Whether we like it or not, we are there, and we should understand it, they should understand it. It would have been wise for Israel not to reject the Arab-Saudi-led Arab peace initiative. That would have brought us close to the heart of the Arab world. Becoming part of the Arab League is not a serious offer right now, but as a vision we can adopt it.