Most Israelis think the Israeli government should take the initiative to salvage and then improve relations with Turkey, believing that closer ties with Turkey will assist in its international campaign against Iran.
The results of a public opinion poll by the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (MITVIM), conducted by the Rafi Smith Institute between Aug. 23 and 26 on 500 Israeli men and women, show that 59 percent of the public thinks that the Israeli government is not doing enough to improve Israeli-Turkish relations. A majority of the public would support an agreement with Turkey that includes an Israeli apology regarding the flotilla incident as well as the renewal of full diplomatic ties and security coordination between Israel and Turkey.
On May 31, 2010, Israeli forces attacked an international flotilla of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip in international waters, killing nine civilians on board the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara. The deadly operation enraged the Turkish government and population to such an extent that Turkey downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel to the level of second secretary by expelling the Israeli ambassador and suspending military agreements with the Jewish state.
Turkey has demanded an official apology, compensation for the victims' families and an end to the Gaza blockade. Israel has refused to apologize for the attack, claiming such a request is an insult to its national pride and that its soldiers acted in self-defense, and has moreover declined to pay compensation to the families, a move that pushed Turkey to impose sanctions on the country.
The poll found that approximately eight out of 10 Israelis believe Israel should take action to improve ties with Turkey given the instability in the Middle East, specifically in Syria -- a remarkably high number that had left experts stunned. Around a year ago 80 percent of Israelis were against any kind of apology, yet today 70 percent of the population says that Israel should take an initiative to solve the problem, as they see Turkey as a lesser evil than Iran, which is the greatest evil for the Israeli public, observers have speculated. “Whether it is an apology or not, people say ‘yes.' This is an opportunity for Israel,” MITVIM head Nimrod Goren said during an interactive policy discussion titled “Turkish-Israeli Relations and the Paradigm Shift in the Middle East” held recently in İstanbul.
According to Goren, the results show that “the Israeli public is no longer willing to take Israel's growing regional isolation for granted, and it believes that despite the efforts to portray Turkey as a radical regional player, Israel can and should act to improve its relations with the country, in light of the changes in the Middle East.”
Goren stated that Israel should identify the opportunities presented by the Arab Spring and take part in the reshaping of the Middle East and change its pro-status quo policy regarding regimes affected by the Arab Spring. "Israel should expand its ability to engage in dialogue with its surrounding region," Goren said, adding that mending ties with Turkey as well as making progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues will play a major role in enabling this to happen.
2013 is an election year for Israel, and the issue of Turkish-Israeli relations will certainly play a part in the election campaign. Goren thinks parties will take advantage of this and hold Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responsible for Israel being so isolated in the region, and so “Netanyahu wants to take this [mode of attack] out of the hands of the leftist groups.”
Netanyahu sent conciliatory signals to Turkey in his interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, pointing out that both countries are pursuing the same interest in Syria.
“We both have a border with Syria, and I am sure we both want to see a stable and peaceful Syria,” Netanyahu said in reference to Ankara. “That is a common interest. There are other common interests that come to mind. I think it is in our common interest to find a way to be able to stop -- to arrest -- the slide in our relationship and resume a fruitful dialogue.”
Kerim Balcı, editor in chief of Turkish Review and an expert on Turkish-Israeli affairs, said that Netanyahu's statements were not made haphazardly as the recent poll shows such sentiments are sought by the Israeli public.
Balcı also noted in an interview with Sunday's Zaman the political face of Netanyahu's comments, adding, “In the event of any possible emergence of Syria as a satellite state under the control of Turkey, Israel might effectively become neighbors with Turkey, a move that requires that Israel get along with Turkey,” pointing out that Turkey is the only state in the region which has the ability to counterbalance Israeli power against Iran.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday the Turkish stance on a possible reconciliation process, saying, "When our conditions are met [an apology for the deaths of Turks aboard an aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip in 2010, compensation for their families and the lifting of the blockade of Gaza], the process of normalization can begin."
Commenting on Turkish-Israeli cooperation on Syria, Alon Liel, former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general and a participant in the Interactive Policy Discussion held in İstanbul last week, said that Turkish-Israeli coordination does not need to be an actual offensive involving an invasion of Syria, but rather through a show of power and determination both sides could convince Bashar al-Assad to leave. Liel also expressed his worries about what happens if Iran takes over in Syria. “Even if Iran [gains a] stronghold in Syria, they won't start speaking about the Golan Heights,” he said.
For Israelis the Golan Heights is the most important issue, and if it is captured by Iran, this would deal a huge blow to Israeli national security. So Israelis prefer Syria aligning with Turkey rather than Iran, particularly after Turkey's recent momentum in Tunisia and Egypt.
Israel's 2010 raid on a Turkish-owned aid ship in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of eight Turks and a Turkish-American, was a watershed moment in the increasingly downward trajectory bilateral relations had taken since 2008, when Israel dealt a severe blow to a Turkish-mediated peace agreement with Syria by bombing the Gaza Strip. Frustrating peace efforts between Syria and Israel, the Gaza attack also devastated bilateral ties between the two major regional powers, which previously enjoyed more than friendly relations in various areas.