Above the Fray: Why Turkey and Israel need each other

Both countries have made mistakes, assuming a zero-sum posture that will serve neither’s national interests.

Erdogan flag 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Erdogan flag 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Turkey’s rise to prominence, especially in the past decade, is impressive. Ankara pursued domestic and foreign policy initiatives consistent with the size of its population, geostrategic location, Western orientation and potential for development. One of the factors behind its recent boisterous behavior is its rising position in the post-9/11 world. Turkey has benefited greatly from its status as a NATO member, with the largest standing military and one of the 20 largest global economies.
In a relatively short time, Turkey has significantly expanded its trade with neighboring states. Moreover, its location, as a border country to Europe, Iraq and Iran, and its status as the only major democracy in the region beside Israel have allowed it to pursue an ambitious foreign policy with considerable success.
Since 2002, Turkey has resolved to adopt an independent foreign policy and has been determined to carve its own sphere of influence, even at the risk of defying the US, which explains its refusal to transport American troops and supplies destined for Iraq in 2003, its cozying up to Hamas and Hizbullah and its public condemnation of Israel’s incursion into Gaza. Moreover, Turkey opposed the Security Council resolution imposing a fourth set of sanctions on Iran, while aggressively pursuing political and trade relations with Teheran.
Furthermore, the voice of the ruling AKP government has resonated particularly well on the Arab street. The “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy, a doctrine developed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has been systematically implemented with vigor and considerable skill. Ankara has converted enemies such as Syria into friends, settled its differences with Iraq and forged a closer alliance with Lebanon. It has also reached out to the majority of Arab states, as well as the Balkans and Caucasus, all while trying to enhance its EU membership prospects.
Such ambitious foreign policy initiatives are bound to have some setbacks. Ankara has failed to settle a century-old conflict with Armenia, found no solution to the situation in Cyprus, failed to realistically address the Kurdish issue and strained its relations with the US. None of these shortcomings, however, has been more pronounced than the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with Israel. The doctrine of “Zero Problems with Neighbors” was forsaken in the case of Israel, with whom Turkey has had an important strategic relationship over more than six decades.
ISRAEL TOO has gone through significant developments, but national security has remained central in its strategic calculations. It has become one of the most developed nations with a growing economy, unsurpassed technological advancement and entrepreneurial spirit.
Moreover, Israel’s perceived invincibility stems from its military power. It reportedly possesses the fourth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, estimated at 150 to 200 warheads.
Turkey was an extremely important ally for Israel, with the relationship considered to be second in importance only to its ties with the US. This explains why Israelis felt so deeply troubled with the turn of events. For most Israelis, the flotilla incident was a major point of departure as Turkey has placed itself among its enemies. Moreover, it made Israel the target of its verbal attacks, especially by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose political onslaughts were designed to raise his country’s popularity in the Arab street. In particular, Israel became extraordinarily alarmed when it was revealed that Turkey’s National Security Council amended its paper outlining foreign and domestic policy for the next five years to define Israel as a central threat, while removing Iran, Russia, Syria and Iraq from the list. Israeli officials insist that Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla incident provide excuses – not the real reasons – for the deteriorating relationship.
PERHAPS TAKEN by their formidable successes, Israel and Turkey have failed to live up to the responsibility of their strategic alliance, which covers by its very nature the entire Middle East. It is not enough to have trade relations and military cooperation without a genuine understanding of each other’s national concerns.
From the Turkish perspective, Israel hardly reached out to it in a comprehensive way on Iran, not just in intelligence sharing, but also in taking into account that Turkey has a vested interest in engagement – especially in oil import – rather than confrontation. While proclaiming its strategic alliance, Israel made little effort to allay Turkish concerns about the stalled peace process and paid little heed to Ankara’s desire to play a constructive role. Israel also insulted Ankara in what is known as the “low sofa affair.” Furthermore, Turkey feels that Israel has deliberately misled it, especially in regard to the negotiations with Syria under its mediation, by failing to share the plans to launch Operation Cast Lead. The flotilla incident was reckless and failed to consider Turkish sensitivity or genuine humanitarian concerns.
From Israel’s perspective, its experience with the Arab states is far more complex than Ankara is willing to recognize. It argues that the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, and the subsequent rocket attacks and wars, prove that the concept of land-for-peace is no longer valid. Israel is growing increasingly convinced that Turkey has made a calculated strategic shift to gain influence in the region at its expense. It argues that Turkey may have given up on EU membership in favor of casting its lot with the East and insists that it must come to grips with the real threat emanating from Iran and that the recent improvement in Ankara-Teheran relations will be short-lived.
CURRENT EFFORTS to mend relations are not likely to work if Ankara has made a strategic shift to the East. This, however, is not a likely scenario because Ankara knows that without Israel’s cooperation, regional peace and stability will remain elusive. Turkey need not abandon bilateral relations to become a leading regional player. The opposite is true. The Arab states have come to accept Israel’s reality, they understand that Turkey can play a significant role in advancing peace, which can only further enhance its regional leadership.
Turkey and Israel have made many mistakes and assumed a zero-sum posture that will serve neither’s national interests. They must both clearly demonstrate that their professed desire to restore friendly relations is translated into action. Erdogan will not be able to fully retreat from his demands that Israel apologize for the flotilla incident and offer compensation for the bereaved families. If he did, he would be subject to intense criticism by the opposition parties in the national election next year. But, he is in a position to exhibit leadership by settling for what Israel can deliver.
Similarly, Binyamin Netanyahu cannot apologize, not only because this would be tantamount to an admission of guilt but also because he too is under political pressure to show resolve. From his perspective, the flotilla incident was an outright Turkish provocation, and no apology is due.
TO MOVE forward, both sides must agree to deal constructively with the UN panel of inquiry and avoid acrimonious charges and countercharges once its findings are made public. In the interim, they must commit themselves to constructive dialogue to reduce tension through a combination of private and official channels. To begin the process of reconciliation Israel should agree to pay compensation as a humanitarian gesture to the families of those who were killed on the Mavi Marmara. This would meet part of the Turkish demand without an admission of wrongdoing.

Turkey, in return, should allow its officials in major Western capitals to talk informally to their Israeli counterparts. Such dialogues will have a marked impact on removing the growing misperception about each other’s intentions. Israel needs to be disabused of the notion that the Islamist tendency of the AKP is the only driving force behind Turkish policies, and Turkey needs to understand that Israel has legitimate security concerns that cannot be dismissed.
In addition, since the US is an ally of both and has vested interest in improved relations between them, an active role could be extremely beneficial.
Ankara and Jerusalem must realize that their relations were dictated by the geostrategic conditions which have not fundamentally changed. The emergence of Iran as a regional power, potentially equipped with nuclear weapons, is a threat to both countries’ long-term strategic interests. It would be an illusion for either to think it can reach its national objectives without the full cooperation of the other.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.