Turkish-Israeli relations still salvageable, experts say

October 29, 2010, Friday/ 17:20:00
A joint conference of Israeli and Turkish academics, journalists and politicians here in Ankara at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) has pointed out that Turkish-Israeli relations have not reached the point of no return; however, repairing them depends on many issues and the behavior of other actors in the region.

The independent think tank USAK, directed by retired Ambassador Özdem Sanberk, who is also the Turkish member of the panel established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the deadly attack perpetrated by Israeli soldiers in May on a flotilla bound for Gaza in which eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American were killed.

Sanberk in his opening remarks said he thinks the relations will carry on but that they depend on mutual trust. He said Turkey had over many years made great efforts to make life easier for Israel in a difficult environment by using all avenues to achieve peace in the Middle East and was very close to its aim in December 2008, while it mediated between Israel and Syria. But Israel decided differently and attacked Gaza.

Sanberk said the relations began to deteriorate from this point, and then the flotilla incident occurred, but he cannot comment on it because of his current work with the UN investigation panel. But he underlined that the killing of Turkish citizens in international waters by Israeli soldiers cannot be acceptable and that Israel should apologize to Turkey and compensate the families of those killed.

He also underlined that, after the flotilla incident, there were claims Turkey had moved away from the West, but added that this does not reflect the reality. According to him, Turkey is changing very rapidly. It has a growing economy and, as a natural outcome of these improvements, is acting like a regional power. “Our friends have to see Turkey with its true size,” he told the audience.

He urged both sides “to see the opportunities of remaining as partners not only because we share the same region and same destiny but the stakes are high and the times of missed opportunities have come to an end.”

Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, general director of the Tel Aviv-based Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), said Turkey is a major and important actor in the Middle East and that the Israeli understanding of Turkey is based on some essential elements.

He described one of these essential elements as Turkey’s relations with Syria since peace between Syria and Israel is crucial for peace in the Middle East. He said Turkey’s role is important in this respect not only as a mediator between the two countries but its possible positive contribution to the essence of the negotiations, namely water, security and the normalization of relations.

Hirschfeld added that Turkey can also contribute to the state building efforts of Palestinians. He recalled that there is an Arab peace initiative but that Israel has some difficulties in understanding what Arab countries mean when they talk about cooperation and security because the Arab countries are not being explicit. According to him, Turkey can contribute to detailing the meaning of these issues.

“Our experience shows that when there is headway in peace negotiations, spoilers come to destroy it. We have Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas which want to prevent peace. We have to have a dialogue on how to undermine these spoiling actions,” he added.

However, he noted that Turkey and Israel are not alone in the Middle East and that every country has its own agenda, and Turkey has to understand this. He gave the example of one Turkish NGO which wanted to work in Gaza, but after consulting with the Egyptians, Israel denied it permission because of Egyptian reluctance.

He underlined that the narrative of Israel about the flotilla issue is different from that of Turkey and that emotions surrounding the issue should also be taken into consideration.

Professor Özlem Tür from Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) underlined that even if the flotilla issue had not taken place, relations between the two countries would be problematic due to the many changes taking place in both countries. For example, especially after the Iraqi war, while Turkey searched for stability in the Middle East, Israel’s main concern became Iran.

She said relations have not been good since December 2008, but Israel has mostly remained passive until it decided to change its attitude at some point, especially after the flotilla incident, which became a turning point for the relations.

She added that it is wrong to think that Turkish-Israeli ties were mainly military relations and, since the military is no longer prominent, the relations between two countries have faded. She again said the relations involved far more than only the military.

Tür said even if bilateral relations are restored, as long as there is no major change in the Palestinian-Israeli track, the relations will not be good and different approaches to the Iranian issue will continue to be a problem.

“Without an apology and compensation, the relations will not go anywhere. Israel has to comply with the results of the UN investigation. Secondly, trust-building measures should be implemented. Positions and claims should be explained through listening and dialogue,” she suggested and added that Turkey should also send the message that it understands Israel’s security concerns.

Journalist Murat Yetkin from the Radikal daily said both countries are acting like children and retaliating against one another. He gave the example of Israel seeking to improve its strategic ties with Greece and Turkey completing a joint military exercise with China after the US pulled out of a joint military exercise between Turkey, Israel and the US. “Who benefits from this behavior?” he asked.

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