Is a Turkish-Israeli reconciliation imminent? by Alon Ben-Meir*
The fact that Israeli and Turkish officials have begun to renew dialogue at a time of significant uncertainty and turmoil in the broader Middle East is, of course, no coincidence.
Israel and Turkey are rare anchors of stability in an increasingly volatile region. With the Arab Spring, the shared strategic interests of Jerusalem and Ankara are becoming ever clearer, particularly with the ongoing unrest in neighboring Syria. These interests are serving to catapult both sides over the obstacles that have hindered their reconciliation since the incident aboard the Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010. With renewed understanding of the benefits of their close cooperation and partnership, Israel-Turkey reconciliation today, should reason prevail, is imminent.
There has been a recent flurry of public signals between Israeli and Turkish officials. First, apparently under pressure from Turkish government officials, the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH), the organizer of last year’s Gaza-bound flotilla, announced that the Mavi Marmara would not be participating in an upcoming flotilla. Shortly thereafter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a congratulatory note for his re-election victory on June 12, stating, “My government will be happy to work with the new Turkish government on finding a resolution to all outstanding issues between our countries, in the hope of re-establishing our cooperation and renewing the spirit of friendship which has characterized the relations between our peoples for many generations.” Reports then surfaced that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon has held private discussions with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu regarding a government-to-government reconciliation document. Most recently, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who infamously humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Israel in front of reporters by placing him on a lower couch, told a group of Turkish reporters visiting Jerusalem that “I believe what we have lost over the past few years is trust. Now we need to let go of this mutual blame game as to why this trust was lost.”
Despite recent public reports of dialogue between the two sides, private channels have been consistently pursuing this dialogue ever since the flotilla incident. What has prevented a resolution of the Israeli-Turkey dispute until now has been Turkey’s insistence on an Israeli apology and compensation to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara. Back-channel efforts have produced numerous drafts of nuanced statements of Israeli acknowledgement, but an outright apology has been refused by Israelis, whose internal investigation revealed that the Israeli Defense Forces operated in self-defense. In particular, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has opposed an apology on the grounds that it implies that the IDF made mistakes, where they did not; whereas Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, known for his lack of sympathy toward Turkey, has opposed the notion of an apology on principle alone.
Although there is a stalemate in the efforts to reach suitable language for a reconciliation document, each side maintains fairly strong ties with the other. Although Turkey’s ambassador has yet to return to Tel Aviv, and Israeli tourists have all but entirely stopped traveling to Turkish coastal towns, Israel kept Ambassador Gabi Levy in Ankara, and business ties have even grown, unimpeded by the political and public spat. In fact, bilateral trade increased by 25 percent between 2009 and 2010, and rose by 40 percent in the first quarter of 2011. With a foundation of strong historic relations, continued private communications and economic growth, what is needed to break the political impasse is a situation highlighting the urgency on both sides of placing their shared interests above their nationalist political postures.
That is exactly what has happened as a result of the Arab Spring. Turkey understands that if it wants to play a leadership role in the Middle East, in particular in the wake of the Arab uprisings, and still influence Israel’s policy, then it has no choice but to deal with Israel as a key player in resolving several regional conflicts, including those along Turkey’s borders. Turkey also realizes that its outreach to the dictatorial regimes of the Mideast has not been entirely successful. There are growing concerns among Turks that the bilateral ties Turkey has forged and strengthened with the nations of the Arab world are not actually based on any solid foundation. Uncertainty is particularly gripping Syria, whose ties with Turkey have grown exponentially stronger in recent years. If the Assad regime collapses, which is likely, the repercussions for Turkey will be significant, as the influx of Syrian refugees across the open border with Turkey already demonstrates. Turkey today is in need of a stabilizing force, which Israel could offer. Until now, Turkey has been unable to move forward in re-establishing ties in part because of the continued populist rhetoric of Turkey’s election season. With Erdoğan’s re-election emboldening the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) leadership, Erdoğan has increased leverage to re-establish ties with Israel from a position of even greater strength than before, and in doing so, stake Turkey’s claim to regional leadership.
For Israel, the benefits of renewed ties with Turkey are also clear. Turkey can assist Israel on a plethora of issues concerning its national security, from the Palestinian attempts to gain recognition at the United Nations, to Hamas’ political platform and the makeup of the Palestinian unity government, to the unrest in Syria, to the nuclear ambitions of Iran. In all of these areas, Turkey can play a vital role and is eager to do so. Reports that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan have increased their dialogue suggest that the United States also understands the benefits of providing Turkey with the leadership tools it needs to exert influence throughout the region in a way that can advance Turkish and Israeli shared interests.
With Turkey-Israel reconciliation in the works, what could the renewed relations look like? First, Turkey’s relations with Israel will strengthen its role as a regional mediator, particularly between the Palestinian factions. Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent visit to Turkey as part of Ankara’s efforts to assist party reconciliation is telling. Even more so was Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon’s moderated rhetoric with regard to Turkey’s outreach to Hamas, telling reporters that “we have no right to tell [Turkey] not to make contact with different [Palestinian] factions” and that if Turkey is successful in moderating Hamas, “we would kiss the hands of every Turk.” In fact, Turkey’s role as a stable, influential voice in the Muslim world places it in a prime position to engage Hamas and to emerge as an influential conflict mediator.
Second, Turkey and Israel have a choice: reach a formula under which Israel expresses “deep regret” for the flotilla episode and offers to compensate the bereaved families of those who were killed aboard the ship, or the two sides could agree on a qualified Israeli apology for the “inadvertent” deaths of nine Turks without placing the blame directly on Israel. In either scenario, it behooves each side to downplay the findings of the upcoming United Nations report on the flotilla incident in order to keep whatever those findings may be from serving to re-inflame the nationalist rhetoric that has served to divide the two sides. Regardless of who is blamed, renewing focus on the incident will only detract, rather than advance, the interests of both nations. Finally, to complete the thaw of the icy relations, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül, perhaps as a response to Netanyahu’s letter of congratulation, could extend an invitation to President Shimon Peres to visit to Ankara. Such a visit would bring the unfortunate episode full circle: from the post-Gaza war public argument between Erdoğan and Peres at the conference in Davos, to a meeting in Ankara, in which the two men could renew the historic ties between their nations.
The tensions between Israel and Turkey could be imminently washed away by a perfect storm that has emphasized Israel and Turkey’s shared interests with regard to developments in Syria, the Palestinian territories, Iran and throughout the broader region. While the nationalist pride of the people of both nations has been considerably damaged by the tension of the past year and a half, both countries have strong leaders who are now positioned to galvanize their people in support of a re-establishment of relations that serves to advance shared interests.
As the Arab world takes to the streets in search of democracy, the two established democratic nations of the region now have a unique opportunity to work together to serve as pillars of stability and to return to the work of advancing security and peace in a region gripped by chaos.
*Alon Ben Meir is a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University.A version of this article was published in The Jerusalem Post on July 1, 2011.