Israel Should Seek to Re-Establish Good Relations With Turkey

Present-day Turkey is completely different from the country Israel knew in the not-too-distant past, writes Arad Nir, and it is precisely because of this that Israel should restore its relations with Ankara.

al-monitor Pro-Palestinian activists attend a rally to mark the second anniversary of the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident in central Istanbul, May 31, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

Topics covered

crisis, crime, zionism, turkey, marmara, israel, erdoğan

Mar 11, 2013

The harsh statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the effect that “Zionism is a crime against humanity” and the parallel he drew between Zionism and Fascism have sparked an international outcry. It has been pointed out in various quarters that such statements are liable to undermine the strenuous and relentless efforts to bring about reconciliation between Jerusalem and Ankara.

However, in my opinion, it is the persistent refusal of Israel to comply with the threshold conditions set by Turkey for the normalization of relations between the two countries that provokes such statements on the part of Erdoğan, and I believe that more than anything else, they reflect his deep frustration. Turkey severed practically all ties with Israel following the Israeli raid on the Turkish [Mavi Marmara, 2010] flotilla to Gaza, in the course of which nine Turkish citizens were killed. Turkey demanded a public apology on the part of Israel as one of the conditions for the revival of relations between the two countries, but Israel declined to meet the terms.

Once the Israeli government comes to its senses and decides to settle its affairs with Turkey, it will find that while Turkey is still insisting, as firmly as ever, on the conditions it set at the time for reconciliation between the two countries, conditions in Turkey itself have changed since. Jerusalem will then have to come to grips with the fact that it is another Turkey it has to deal with.

One of the first objectives of the new government to be set up in Jerusalem would thus be the restoration of diplomatic relations with Ankara. As a matter of fact, although the Israeli ambassador was expelled from Turkey over a year ago [in September 2011] and the diplomatic corps at the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv was cut to the bare minimum, the diplomatic channel between the two countries is still open and active. Every few months, envoys on behalf of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet with Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioğlu, who has been appointed by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to manage the contacts with the Israeli emissaries, and the two sides discuss the possible normalization of relations. So far, these discussions, including the last round of talks held in Rome in late January, have failed to pave the way for the sought-after reconciliation.

However, notwithstanding the strained diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, the economic ties between the two countries are flourishing. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, while imports from Turkey to Israel amounted in May 2010 (before the Marmara crisis) to $154.7 million, they have soared since, to a total of $210.7 million in January 2013.

Yet, I'm sorry to say, contrary to what might have been expected, the ratification of the huge deal for the supply of sophisticated intelligence devices manufactured by the Israel Aerospace Industries to the Turkish Air Force, put on ice [following the incident], does not herald any budding reconciliation between Ankara and Jerusalem. Likewise, the gas deal negotiated between the two countries, which involves the laying of a pipeline for exporting the gas to Turkey and — a deal that, according to Israel, is to be signed shortly — is unlikely to restore the relations.

These two transactions are no more than mere gestures, the last ones in a series of various others made by Israel in the past three years with the hope that Turkey would mitigate the three rigid conditions it set for reconciliation. Alas, to no avail.

What are those three conditions?

In a diplomatic letter sent by the Foreign Ministry in Ankara to the Israeli Embassy in the Turkish capital on June 19, 2010, about a month after the takeover attempt of the Mavi Marmara, only two conditions were specified — a public apology by Israel for the killing of Turkish civilians and payment of compensation to the families of the victims. Speaking in a televised interview 10 days later, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu mentioned these two conditions alone.

Furthermore, the investigation report released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry in February 2011 states that Israel must apologize and pay compensation. Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is described in the report as illegal, but the report does not explicitly call on Israel to lift the blockade. These conditions were formulated by top-ranking Turkish diplomats, who emphasized their wish, in talks I held with them, “to settle the affair as soon as possible and to pay tribute to the Turkish victims, while taking care not to damage Israel's prestige and sustaining the vital relationship between the two countries.”

At the time, the need to lift the blockade on Gaza was referred to by Turkish spokespersons as a moral obligation rather than as a precondition. However, Erdoğan was swept away by his own rhetoric and addressing the issue in public speeches, he himself, on his own initiative, turned the lifting of the blockade on Gaza into the third condition.

Thus, when Joseph Ciechanover and Özdem Sanberk, the representatives of Israel and Turkey, respectively, assisted by Israeli Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioğlu, met to formulate a settlement agreement, which would have rendered the Palmer Commission report superfluous (the Palmer Commission, headed by former Prime Minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer, was established by the UN to investigate the flotilla events) and restored the relations between the two countries, an agreement was reached on the two original conditions alone.

And although there were still certain differences of opinion over the third condition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was inclined to okay an agreement whereby Israel would apologize for “operational failures, if any, that occurred during the attempted takeover of the Mavi Marmara” and pay compensation to the families of the victims. Eventually, Prime Minister Netanyahu retracted his consent under pressure by then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who firmly objected to any version of the agreement that called for an apology on the part of Israel, while exempting the Turks from the obligation to apologize for their part in the events.

The Palmer Commission report was subsequently leaked and Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador to Ankara and downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel.

As said above, even the goodwill gestures have proven futile. Thus, Israel approved the transfer of Turkish equipment for the construction of a hospital in Gaza and was quick to respond to the Turkish call for help following the earthquake in Van (in October 2011). Erdoğan, for his part, dispatched firefighting planes to Israel to help put out a forest fire on Mount Carmel (in December 2010). However, when it came to the normalization of relations between the two countries, none of those gestures was of any help. Normalization — Yok (meaning “doesn't exist” in Turkish).

And all that time, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu have been reiterating that nothing is going to change as long as Israel refuses to meet all three conditions as is — without seeking any compromise or a way around.

On the other side of the divide, Israel adamantly refuses to accept the Turkish dictate. The reason for this, beyond “national honor,” which will not be discussed here, lies in the uncertainty regarding the following questions — Would an apology restore back to normalcy the relations between the countries? Would reparation by Israel ensure the revival of the strategic alliance between the countries? And would Ankara refrain from blatantly lashing out against the Israeli government once the latter meets its terms?

The answers to these questions are “no,” “no” and “no.” If the decision makers in Israel are given the opportunity to meet once again with their counterparts in Turkey, they will find out that Turkey is no longer the country they once knew. They will discover that in the years of diplomatic rupture, Erdoğan led Turkey in a new direction. In those years, Turkey has become more Islamic.

Thus, for instance, a year ago Erdoğan sparked a furor when he declared in parliament that he sought to “raise a religious youth.” He has also promoted a legislative amendment lifting the ban on female students wearing headscarves in state-run [educational] institutions.

Even worse, he is currently acting to restrict the right of women to have an abortion — which he calls “murder” — this, even in the case of rape.

At the same time, Erdoğan’s party has been imposing ever more restrictions on alcohol consumption. By the way, it may be noted that, to meet the new requirements, the famous basketball team Efes Pilsen had to be renamed Anadolu Efes, so as to remove allusion to the alcoholic nature of its namesake — the alcoholic beverage Efes Pilsen (Pilsner style Beer) produced by its sponsor, the Turkish Efes Beverage Group.

The Turkish top brass, once well-known in Israel — the “gatekeepers” of secularism in the Turkey of the past — were put behind bars. On the last Republic Day, their replacements, the newly appointed army officers, attended the ceremonious reception at the residence of Turkish President Abdullah Gül, an event previously boycotted by their predecessors in protest of the headscarf worn by the Turkish president’s wife.

However, the coin has another side. To move toward reconciliation, the decision makers in Israel must realize that the present-day Turkey is no longer the strategically weak state it used to be. In fact, Turkey is a rising economic power. It is a member of the G-20 forum of major world economies and its economy ranks 17th in the world. Aspiring even higher, Erdoğan has set a goal for Turkey — to rank among the ten leading economies in the world by the year 2023 (one hundred years following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey).

The Turkish Airlines fly to and from a range of destinations expanded beyond imagination. And a third international airport, “the largest in the world,” they say in Turkey, is currently under planning in Istanbul.

In 2008, when Erdoğan met with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the UN General Assembly, the Turkish prime minister asked Peres for help in promoting the interests of Ankara in Washington. At present, Erdoğan has no need for Peres to find a sympathetic ear in Washington. The president of the United States sees in the prime minister of Turkey a close partner. The way from Ankara to Washington is no longer passing through Jerusalem.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes up his mind to seriously act in the course of his third tenure to restore Israel’s relationship with Turkey, he will have to take in the fact that the circumstances have changed. Normalization with Turkey would no longer mean a strategic alliance between the two countries. Nor will there be any more confidential understandings with generals who are running state affairs, reached over the heads of elected politicians, the way it used to be prior to the election of Erdoğan to the premiership.

Likewise, gone by are the times when Turkey shilly-shallied about what it perceived as the injustices of the occupation and refrained from taking action in response. The government in Jerusalem is bound to be harshly slammed whenever its policy annoys Ankara.

But notwithstanding all that and, actually, because of all that, the Israeli interest is to settle its affairs and straighten its ties with Turkey — as long as it can do so; as long as the diplomatic channel is open and there are still in Ankara public officials who remember and cherish the days of glory in the relations between the two countries.

The Israeli interest is to return the Israeli ambassador to Ankara, so that he would be in a position to present and argue in favor of the Israeli position, and perhaps even reassure the Turks and restore their confidence in Israel. Once that is accomplished, the prime ministers and ministers of defense of both countries will be able to conduct a direct dialogue, while Israeli and Turkish military and intelligence officials will be given the opportunity to exchange information concerning common threats, such as Syria and even Iran.

Furthermore, once relations between the two countries are restored, Turkey will drop its objection to Israeli participation in NATO exercises and allow NATO commanders to convey to Israel data gathered by anti-ballistic missile radar stations positioned on Turkish territory (information that may prove essential if the tension vis-à-vis Iran escalates).

What's more, once the relations between the two countries are restored, the air routes over Turkey will be open to [Israeli] military flights, as well. IDF officers and soldiers will no longer be subject to threats on the part of international legal tribunals and Turkey will no longer seek to inhibit Israel’s activity in international organizations.

The Middle East is changing before our eyes. Turkey has not remained the same either and since Ankara downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel, Turkey too has dramatically changed. Israel must realize all that, but for that very reason Israel should not lose Turkey. Israel needs Turkey by its side.

Arad Nir is the head of foreign news desk and International commentator for Channel 2 News, the largest news provider in Israel.

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