ISTANBUL – When the news of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s apology
broke, a sigh of relief spread across the tiny Jewish community of
Despite keeping a low profile, this community of fewer
than 20,000 people has gone through an emotional roller coaster since
Operation Cast Lead, the subsequent drama at the 2009 World Economic
Forum in Davos, and later the 2010 IDF raid on the Gaza flotilla. In the
days following those events, Turkish Jews witnessed numerous
anti-Israel demonstrations at which anti-Semitic slogans were openly
chanted in the streets, and watched TV series that depicted Jewish
villains (some non-Israeli) – including a show on the official state
In four short years – from receiving orders from the
Ministry of Education to observe a minute of silence for the
“Palestinian child victims of Israel” at every school, including the
Jewish community school in Istanbul, to walking past street billboards
that read, “You cannot be the offspring of Moses!” in Jewish-populated
neighborhoods, to provocative pushes from the local media to pick a side
in numerous bitter exchanges of words between Turkish and Israeli
officials – the centuries-old community had had enough already.
with the synagogue bombings of 2003, the past decade has seen a surge
in anti-Semitic rhetoric across the spectrum in Turkey, reaching levels
unseen since the 1940s. Yet at the same time, the AKP government has
shown an unprecedented openness to dialogue and cooperation with the
Jewish community, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated
willingness to draw a line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism
has helped reduce the anxiety among the members of our community.
While a minority of Turkish Jews chose to leave the country in recent years, the majority stayed and braved the stormy weather.
are proud that Turkey, for decades, has served as a model for
cooperation and friendship between Muslim countries and Israel. We
believe that as the Arab Spring deconstructs old models of governance in
Arab countries, Turkey can provide the Arabs with a stable and
progressive model of nation-building in the Middle East.
much of the press portrayed the recent rift between Turkey and Israel as
unprecedented, the history of their bilateral relations has actually
been anything but smooth – a product of Turkey’s struggle to balance and
rebalance delicate relationships in a volatile region.
Jews still remember Turkey’s “no” vote on the 1947 UN Partition Plan for
Palestine, which gave birth to the only Jewish state in modern times.
However, they also cherish Turkey for having become the first
Muslim-majority state to recognize Israel only a year and a half after
the UN vote.
The years that followed have witnessed the repeated
downgrading and upgrading of diplomatic ties, fluctuating among full
ambassadorial, charge d’affaires, legation, and the second secretary. In
fact, the relationship has been so bipolar that only a few weeks ago –
during behind-the-scenes negotiations for the apology – Erdogan suddenly
labeled Zionism a “crime against humanity” comparable to “fascism.” It
was a statement that shocked many Jews not only because it singled out
Jewish yearning for self-determination as a crime (without condemning
any other form of nationalism), but also compared a historical European
movement aimed at providing Jews with a safe haven from persecution, to a
contemporary movement that produced the largest-scale genocide of Jews
While these remarks drew international criticism, the
officially apolitical Turkish- Jewish community avoided making any
statement on the topic. That is also probably because Turkish Jews feel
the Judeo- Turkish relationship is too complex and deeply rooted to be
sacrificed to some quotidian political rhetoric.
community remained silent on Israel’s apology for the operational errors
during the flotilla raid. However, when I reached out to community
leadership, I found that it was very pleased with Israel’s decision. A
representative said she “welcome[s] the recent development and look[s]
forward to seeing the relations between the two countries strengthen
The views are more elaborate in the private sphere. A
Jewish businessman, who did not want to be named, shared his delight at
Israel’s decision and hoped to see more of the reconciliatory tone on
“All else aside, it is good for the business – for Turks and Israelis alike,” he said.
The normalization of relations is primarily realpolitik.
his Monday column in the HaberTürk daily, Soli Özel – the Middle East
expert at the International Strategic Research Organization and a
professor of international relations at Kadir Has University – pointed
to the rise in Turkey’s clout under the current government.
“Netanyahu realized that he is facing a new Turkey with new rules of engagement,” he wrote.
giving in to the apology demand, Israel also understood that the way to
Turkey’s heart was through its emotional character. For instance,
following the apology, the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality sponsored
street billboards that read, “Our Dear Prime Minister, we thank you for
giving our country this pride: Israel has apologized to Turkey.”
Turkish-Israeli relations have always been based on strategic
interests, and Turkey’s attitude toward Israel is determined much more
by macro events than by bilateral issues. For example, it was right
after the first OPEC oil embargo that Turkey actively supported the
infamous UN Resolution 3379, declaring Zionism “a form of racism”; and
it was just when the Communist bloc collapsed and the Gulf War broke
that Turkey welcomed the passing of UN Resolution 46/86, which revoked
Resolution 3379. In fact, the liberal, pro-US decade of the 1990s has
been a boon for Turkish-Israeli relations.
So it should come as
no surprise that Turkey’s vocal opposition to Israeli policies have
coincided with Ankara taking a more active leadership role in the Muslim
world, and the subsequent rapprochement has come at a crucial time:
With the serious security risks emanating from Syria and Iran, a
seamless Turkish-Israeli-American coordination of military and
intelligence assets benefits all three countries.
reconciliation wishful thinking? “I don’t think the AKP government
approves of Israeli policies,” said Gila Benmayor when I asked if she
thought the official shift in attitude would be permanent.
As a columnist for Hürriyet, one of the most popular Turkish daily newspapers, she supports the efforts to reconcile.
it comes to strategic interests, Shimon Peres got it right in the
interview he gave [to Turkish news outlets] on Sunday,” she said. “Past
is dead. Now we look forward!” Peres is right because, at present, that
is the only rational way. With uncertainty looming over Syria’s chemical
weapons arsenal and Iran’s alleged nuclear arms program, Turkey and
Israel, as the only democracies in the Middle East, cannot continue
bickering forever at the expense of vital strategic interests.
we shouldn’t ever expect relations to go back to the 1990s,” Özel
argued when I asked him about the future of bilateral relations. “At
best, they will be like in the 1949-1991 period but conducted strictly
on economic and strategic terms.... The relations are still fragile. I
don’t think the fundamentals of this rapprochement are strong enough to
withstand the next military operation by Israel.”
On the whole,
we have seen it all. We have seen Turkey and Israel at their best during
the earthquake diplomacy of 1999 and firefighting diplomacy of 2010,
and at their worst during the humiliating “low stool” drama that deputy
foreign minister Danny Ayalon staged in Jerusalem and Erdogan’s recent
“Zionism” attack in Vienna.
After all is said and done, it is a
relief to leave behind the flotilla incident. We can all take a relaxing
breath... and hold it until the next crisis erupts. If history is
indicative of the future, there will be many more crisis moments between
the two countries – and worst comes to worst, there will always be the
US to step in as the responsible parent and do some arm-twisting to make
the two sides shake hands. I guess we can live with that.
course, there is an even better alternative. Now is the optimal time
for Erdogan to use his credibility on the Arab street toward peace and
security in the region. By not backing down from his demands for three
years and leveraging the macro environment wisely in Turkey’s favor, he
has negotiated a solution with Israelis, which most Turks see as fair
and as a source of pride. Now is the time to tell the Arabs that there
is a peaceful way of negotiating solutions with Israel, one based on
goodwill and persistence – and one in which you don’t lose face at home.
writer, who has a BA in political science from Yale and an MBA from
Harvard, is a pharmaceutical executive, healthcare consultant and
freelance journalist. His blog can be viewed at www.igalaciman.com.