Toledo: Turkey should normalize ties with Israel as 2015 nears

October 24, 2013, Thursday/ 17:18:00/ SİNEM CENGİZ

Ankara should accelerate its efforts to normalize ties with Israel before 2015, the centennial of the so-called Armenian genocide in 1915, as the global Israeli lobby has significantly toned down its previously staunch support of Turkey in blocking the recognition of claims of genocide, said Zali De Toledo, head of the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel.

“As 2015 is approaching, Turkey should take into account its interests and should normalize relations with Israel by appointing an ambassador to Israel as soon as possible. If both countries miss the opportunity to mend the ties, the Israeli lobby will likely stay neutral when 2015 comes,” De Toledo told Today's Zaman.

Relations between Turkey and Israel -- countries that once enjoyed solid ties at all levels -- worsened in May 2010 and have remained strained since Israeli naval commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a humanitarian aid ship attempting to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza, killing eight Turkish civilians and one Turkish-American.

After the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey downgraded ties with the Israeli state by withdrawing its ambassador and expelling the Israeli ambassador from Turkey.

De Toledo said she had done her utmost to pressure the Israeli lobby in the US to refrain from labeling mass killings of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915 as genocide, adding: “I was the strongest supporter of the Turkish position. And now I am really disappointed to see Turkish-Israeli relations at this point.”

De Toledo served as Israeli cultural attaché to Turkey for 10 years, from 1993 to 2003. Israeli President Shimon Peres offered her the position in a bid to improve relations between the two countries.

Although for many years Israel has held back from commenting on the matter for fear of angering Turkey, last year the Israeli parliament had a debate over whether to recognize the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I as genocide.

In order to end what became a major diplomatic crisis between the two former allies, in late March Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered an apology to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident.

The apology met one of three demands Ankara made to Tel Aviv. The others were compensation for the families of the passengers killed on the ship and the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

Referring to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's harsh stance toward Israel over the Gaza issue, De Toledo says: “It's a one-man show in Turkey. Why is Erdoğan asking for the lifting of the blockade on Gaza? Why is he interfering? This is an issue between Israelis and Gazans, after all!”

Israeli apology has nothing to do with isolation in region

Israel did not apologize to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident because it felt isolated in the Middle East, according to Reuven Azar, head of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bureau for Middle East Research.

“It is not an issue of feeling alone in the region or not. It is more than that. Israel considers Turkey a major player in the region and wants to have an alliance with it just like in the past years. Israelis have sympathy toward Turkey and want to restore relations,” Azar told a group of Turkish journalists at the Israeli Foreign Ministry earlier this week.

“Israel is not alone. When it comes to the balance of power in the region, our position is better than the past in terms of security and economy,” Azar said.

The Israeli prime minister said that Israel apologized to Turkey because of the volatile situation in Syria.

Azar went on to say that Israel and Turkey have common interests when it comes to Syria. “The common goal is to maintain stability in the country,” he said.

Addressing the strained relations between the two countries, Azar said that Ankara and Tel Aviv can solve the problems that concern each side, adding that the two countries should come to an understanding and move on. “However, we don't really know what is going to be the future of the Turkish approach toward Israel. Turkey's relations with Hamas are seriously disturbing. This situation brings a question to mind -- to what extent can we put our eggs in the Turkish basket?” Azar said.

Relations between Turkey and Hamas, which rules Gaza, have been improving since Turkey's ties with Israel collapsed over the Mavi Marmara incident.

“We have to ask whether Mavi Marmara is the only issue on the table. Where is Turkey heading in terms of political orientation? We look to Turkey-Hamas relations with great concern. We know that Turkey supports the Middle East peace process, but on the other hand it talks with Hamas,” Azar said.

In early October, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal paid a surprise visit to Ankara, where he met with Erdoğan for talks on Palestinian reconciliation and developments in the Middle East.

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