Just minutes before US President Barack Obama – wrapping up a three-day visit in Israel – boarded Air Force One for Jordan, he gave Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a ring. After a few formalities, Obama handed the phone to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who proceeded to apologize for the “tragic results” of clashes between IDF soldiers and pro-Hamas Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara in May 2010.
“Israel expresses regret over the injuries and loss of life,” Netanyahu told Erdogan. He also mentioned Israel’s willingness to provide monetary compensation to the families of the nine activists on board the flotilla who were killed after they attacked the Israeli forces who boarded the ship.
Many here in Israel were critical of Netanyahu’s decision to acquiesce to Obama’s request. They rightly argued that it was the Turkish provocation, not the use of Israeli force – deemed legitimate by the UN-appointed Palmer Commission – that needed an apology. At any rate, said the critics, little would come of such a gesture considering Turkey’s Islamist transformation since 2002 when the AKP rose to power. There is much to be said for the critics’ pessimism.
Under AKP’s leadership, secular elites who zealously dominated the military, legal system and state bureaucracy – often via undemocratic methods – are gradually being supplanted by a newly empowered Muslim bourgeois that makes up Erdogan’s political base. This Muslim bourgeois has also been a benefactor of AKP’s procapitalist policies, which helped the economy grow by 9 percent on average in 2010-2011, though annual GDP was down to 2.2% in 2012.
And Erodgan’s foreign policy approach – sometimes referred to as “neo-Ottomanism” – which pursues a return to Turkish dominance in the region, resonates more with Turkey’s traditional-minded majority than past attempts under a more secular leadership to align Turkey with the West.
Erdogan’s open hostility toward Israel is a common tactic used by Muslim leaders to boost popularity at home and throughout the region. Turkey under Islamist leadership sides with Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, because of the AKP’s ideological affinity with Hamas and because the Gaza-based regime is part of a broader Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated resurgence taking place in Egypt and Tunisia and perhaps will spread to Libya, Jordan and post-Assad Syria.
Turkey’s repeated attempts to obstruct efforts by Israel to improve ties with NATO are another aspect of this openly anti-Israel approach. Under the circumstances, Netanyahu’s apology had little chance of reversing the direction of social undercurrents driving Istanbul’s foreign policy.
In the aftermath of the apology there has been no significant change in Turkey’s attitude toward Israel.
Despite expectations to the contrary, Erdogan has avoided committing to a resumption of full diplomatic relations with Israel. And in a diplomatic slap in the face to both Israel and the US, the Turkish prime minister has made public his intention to visit Hamas-ruled Gaza in May.
In short, Erdogan, who in February while in Vienna called Zionism a “crime,” continues to snub Israel. But perhaps some justification can be made for the apology.
Netanyahu’s gesture, though directed at Erdogan, was more for the sake of improving relations with the Obama administration. More importantly, the apology might have paved the way for an important Israeli strategic goal.
National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, who is presently in Turkey to discuss compensation for the flotilla victims, is also negotiating with the Turkish government to use an airbase in Ankara as a launching pad for an attack on Iran, according to the Sunday Times.
Starting in 1996, Israel was permitted to use the Akinci airbase northwest of Ankara. But in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara raid, Turkey terminated the agreement.
Using the Turkish airbase could mean the difference between Israeli success and failure, an IDF source told the Sunday Times. From a Realpolitik perspective, Israeli and Turkish interests might dovetail vis-a-vis the Iranian threat. If Netanyahu’s apology facilitated this strategic achievement, it was worth it.