JERUSALEM — After the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident and its diplomatic fallout, many debated long and hard whether Israel or Turkey most needed the other. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an official apology to Turkey on March 22, another type of debate ensued. Turks presumed that Israel decided that it could not bear the loss of Turkey as an ally, even if a frosty one, and therefore extended the apology. In Israel, meanwhile, the issue became that the Turkish government seemed to be deceiving the public in its statements on the apology. After spending nearly a week in Israel and having conversations with numerous diplomatic sources, the following is what I gathered about the state of Turkish-Israeli relations.
First of all, Israel prefers to have Turkey on its side, but that does not necessarily mean that its survival depends on good relations with the Ankara government. “The past three years have shown us that we don’t necessarily need each other,” an Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. “We extended our political and diplomatic relationships with Greece, Greek Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia — that is, mainly the Central European countries — and we don’t really feel isolated at all.” Another diplomatic source asserted to Al-Monitor, “The apology was the right thing to do, and we did it. We could have done that before, but the negotiations did not yield results then.”
Second, Israeli diplomatic sources caution that Turkey is providing an incorrect explanation of the apology by suggesting that Israel lifted the blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza because of Ankara's strong stand on the need for an apology. They say the restrictions were lifted soon after the Mavi Marmara incident and that there is nothing new being allowed to flow into Gaza that would support the Turkish government's assertions.
“What has been made possible today that was not possible about a month ago or a year ago? Well, the answer is 'Not much,’” an Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. “There’s a permanent process of easing the restrictions. It has been going on for a while. Today anything can be imported into Gaza except military materiel. The strict restrictions are imposed on things that come out. You cannot allow people to come out of a territory that is governed by a government that declares war on you. And that restriction has not changed.”
“There is something that has been concealed from the Turkish public opinion,” contended an Israeli source. “Of course, Gaza has borders with both Israel and Egypt. They both impose restrictions on the borders. On the Egyptian side, this has been the permanent policy both under [former president Hosni] Mobarak and [President Mohammed] Morsi, which means this is perceived by Egyptians as serving their interests. This is something important to ponder when you speak about the situation in Gaza. If Gaza under Hamas has become a danger to Egypt under two very different regimes, then there must be something bad going on in Gaza, and Turkish people are not [being] told about it. To accuse Israel and Israel alone of imposing a siege is telling half the truth, and telling half the truth is worse than a lie.”
Third, one can no longer speak of an Israeli-Turkish bilateral relationship. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that good relations with Israel will be conditioned upon Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Also relevant to relations is that both Turkey and Israel need the support of the White House for their own domestic political needs as well as for their individual security reasons. Thus, given that Ankara is not really talking about reestablishing close bilateral ties with Israel, the situation has evolved into a four-way, codependent relationship among Turkey, Israel, the United States, and Palestine.
“We have noted that the current Turkish government seems to think that Israel is not an important ally, and in fact, is not an ally at all,” an Israeli diplomatic source said. “Therefore it should not be taken into consideration as an important part of the puzzle of Turkey’s regional diplomacy. This downgrade of relations not only has become dramatic, but it has also taken at times very ugly forms in certain statements.”
Although the Turkish political establishment and the public continue to ponder the death of the nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara after the Israeli apology, there is a sense of hurt feelings among Israelis from the Turkish leadership's verbal assaults. Moreover, Israelis emphasize that to them, the activists in the flotilla were not peaceful, and had vigorously attacked the Israeli commandos. There is intense suspicion about the intentions of the Turkish government, and many, in government and on the street, wonder whether they will ever be able to again trust Turkey.
Fourth, this perception goes to the heart of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s discussions with the Turks and Israelis over a potential Turkish role in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. From the Israeli perspective, it is Ankara that wants to be instated as a partner in the talks and that the Americans support the idea. One knowledgeable Israeli source speculated that the United States might be assuming that if Ankara participates in trying to help bridge differences between the Palestinians and Israelis, it will start to act more responsibly, restrain itself from bad mouthing Israel and start balancing its current unequivocal support for Hamas. “But it is going to be difficult to find [traction] for such a thought here,” the source said.
Senior Turkish diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor that Turkey is more self-confident and more proactive than ever in the region, and it does not believe any longer that its role as mediator means it must maintain an equal distance from both sides or be neutral. “We certainly have an idea about the way forward between the Israelis and Palestinians, and we also would like Israel to understand that the Palestinians are not alone,” the source revealed.
The Israelis who spoke with Al-Monitor do not doubt that there is a role for Turkey in peace talks, but they question what in particular it might be. One source pointed out, “Egypt is no longer the leader of Israeli-Palestinian talks, and there is a vacuum there,” waiting to be filled. For now, both Turkey and Egypt seem to have better ties with Hamas in Gaza than they do with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Israelis say Egypt delivering messages to Hamas serves Israel's interest. Turkey does not have good standing in Ramallah despite statements to the contrary by the PA under pressure from Ankara. Indeed, the PA is concerned about the strong support of Erdogan for Hamas and believes that Ankara favors the Islamist movement.
One Turkish diplomatic source informed Al-Monitor that he had received information that the Palestinians would in coming months resolve their differences, at which time Erdogan would travel to Gaza to celebrate the reconciliation. While Israeli diplomatic sources counsel caution about such optimism, they question why Erdogan would choose to go to Gaza instead of Ramallah. “If Erdogan wants Hamas to take over the West Bank as well, he is on the right track,” a diplomatic source said. All in all, however, Israeli sources indicated that they do not expect an Erdogan visit to Gaza will become a reality for one simple reason: Egypt won’t allow it to happen. In any case, Kerry has advised Erdogan against a Gaza visit, and Ankara made it clear that one will not take place at least until after the prime minister visits the White House on May 16.
Moreover, the Israelis question Turkey’s understanding of mediation and whether Ankara can rewrite the rules and theories on how to conduct business concerning the crucial matters involved. The Israeli diplomatic sources asserted that a mediator has to be trusted and must prove its usefulness to both sides. “If the party in question is not seen as useful to one of the negotiating parties, why would they use them as a mediator?” The issue in the current situation, the same source explained, is not whether Turkey remains neutral, but that it does not offer a friendly environment for Israel and that that is unacceptable.
“It’s natural for Turkey to feel more sympathetic toward Palestinians. No one will begrudge Turkey for that, but that does not mean that it has to bad mouth Israel publicly or it has to deny aggressions against Israel, such as rocket launching by Hamas, or that it can be uncritical of Hamas’ destructive declared intentions toward Israel,” a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. “As long as Turkey does that, it can feel righteous, but it will achieve nothing in terms of mediation because how will it be useful or trusted?”
In addition, the Israelis say, if Erdogan is sincere in assuming a role in peace talks, he must understand that he needs to win over the Israeli public so the Israeli government can engage seriously. That said, if Turkey succeeds in convincing Hamas to accept the conditions laid out by the Quartet (the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States) — that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and adhere to previous diplomatic agreements — no one will say “No, thanks” to such a contribution. In Israel, however, no one even considers that Erdogan can assume such a constructive role given that he has said numerous times that Turkey considers Hamas a legitimate organization fighting against occupation and that he has never publicly criticized Hamas for firing rockets into Israel.
Fifth, the Israelis made it abundantly clear that Israel does not feel dependent on a route through Turkey to deliver newly discovered natural gas on the eastern Mediterranean to international markets. They highlight two points: Israel has not yet decided whether it will export any of the gas, and if so, how much, and Israel takes the issue of safety seriously, noting that any pipeline between Turkey and Israel must cross through the territorial waters of Lebanon and Syria. “Last year, our pipeline with Egypt came to a complete halt after 30 years not because of Morsi . . . , but because of the fiftieth or sixtieth terrorist attack. So, maybe other options are safer for us,” one Israeli told Al-Monitor.
Sixth, the Israelis underlined that Turkey and Israel have a substantial common interest in preventing the Syrian crisis from spilling over into their territories as well as preventing the proliferation of arms and potential chemical weapons because of it. “There is so much we can do together if we start really cooperating on this issue,” one Israeli diplomatic source said to Al-Monitor. “We’re already in the post-Assad era while he is sitting in Damascus.” The sense here is that there won’t be a central government in Syria for a long time and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sort of remaining in power today really does not mean much at all.
Last but not least, Israeli sources highlighted that Turkey is dependent on Israel for transporting exports. “Turkish export routes to the east used to go through Syria, to the East and to the Gulf. That’s not possible anymore. Turkish exports are shipped to the port of Haifa, where they’re loaded onto trucks, which cross Israel and then go to Jordan, and then from Jordan, they are shipped to the Gulf and to the East,” said one source. “Israel has now become a [pivotal] point for Turkish exports. It’s good, but no one wants to talk about it publicly. Why not? There is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.