Perhaps the primary cause behind the rapid deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations before Iran became central to their clash is Turkey’s disappointment over the failure of former prime minister Ehud Olmert to conclude an Israeli- Syrian peace agreement, painstakingly mediated by Ankara. Turkey felt betrayed by Olmert, who failed to deliver.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who invested heavy political capital in the mediation between Damascus and Jerusalem, was expecting to witness the signing of a peace treaty, but was instead confronted with the news that Israel had invaded Gaza. From Turkey’s perspective, an Israeli-Syrian peace could have fundamentally changed the geopolitical conditions throughout the region and led to the resolution of other conflicts while fostering long-term regional stability. In essence, it was a historic opportunity that was squandered by Israel.
AS A rising power, there was nothing more pronounced for Turkey to undertake than mediating peace between Israel and Syria, which has eluded the United States for decades. The opportunity presented itself in early October 2007 when Syria indicated through a back channel that it was ready, willing and able and that it was prepared to make significant concessions to allay Israel’s security and water concerns.
It is critically important to note that Syria’s expressed desire to enter into peace negotiations came only three weeks after Israel’s alleged bombing of a suspected Syrian nuclear plant.
Syria was interested in forging a peace agreement with Israel at that particular juncture prompted by its growing isolation, its economic hardship and especially the realization that however important its bilateral relations with Iran, it has its own liability as well as its limitations, especially in the long run. The question for Syria at the time was whether Turkey or Spain would be a more suitable mediator, as Damascus insisted that while it was ready to make peace with Israel, it wanted to negotiate through a third party.
Damascus convincingly argued that it would be willing to move to direct negotiations once the parameters for an agreement were established, as long as Israel accepted the principle that any peace accord would be based on the exchange of territory for peace and that the 1967 cease-fire lines provided the baseline.
Turkey’s proximity, its improved relations with Syria and its excellent ties with Israel at the time quickly ruled out Spain as a potential mediator. Within a few weeks, the three countries agreed on the modalities of the negotiations which commenced in earnest at the beginning of 2008. Although the details of the negotiations between Israel and Syria remained confidential, it became public knowledge that they were taking place. Over a period of more than a year, the Turkish government invested substantial time and political capital to significantly advance the process.
Based on very reliable accounts, by December 2008 Israel and Syria were able to resolve nearly 95 percent of their differences. Syria was able to satisfy Israel’s stringent security requirements, which included the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, the stationing of peacekeeping forces on Syrian territory, and a monitoring system to prevent any violation of the accord. In addition, both sides agreed to a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces to ensure orderly transition. Furthermore, Syria agreed to an equitable distribution of water, developing a joint park and providing special permits to Israelis to visit the Golan. Interestingly, Syria was also ready to consider the development of a free trade zone open to all the states in the area, a project that would have transformed the relationships between Israel and all of its neighbors.
THE OCCASION was celebrated between Erdogan and Olmert with a dinner in Ankara that lasted five hours. Olmert was expected to confirm the near-agreement with his Turkish counterpart within a few days after his consultation with his government immediately upon his return to Israel. Instead, to the utter surprise and dismay of the Turkish government, five days after Olmert returned to Jerusalem, Israel began a massive incursion into Gaza. Ankara felt betrayed by the Israeli action and deceived by Olmert’s failure to inform the Turkish prime minister of its pending operation of which he, as prime minister, was obviously fully aware of. For Erdogan, the problem was compounded not only because he did not hear from Olmert the message of peace which he eagerly anticipated, but a “declaration” of war with all of its potential regional consequences.
It is hard to describe the depth of the Turks’ disappointment, not only because they were left in the dark, but because a major breakthrough in the Arab- Israeli peace process of historical magnitude was snatched away. On its rise as a regional power, for Turkey to successfully mediating a peace agreement between Israel and Syria after 60 years of conflict would have placed Turkey at the forefront of international prominence, especially because an Israeli-Syrian peace would have had so many other regional and even international implications.
From the Turkish perspective, it would have changed the region’s
political dynamic and paved the way to peace between Israel and Lebanon
and Israel and the Palestinians, and might have also changed the nature
of hostile relations between Israel and Iran, thereby averting a
potential violent conflict between the two nations which Ankara
From the Turkish point of view, Israel acted as if it is accountable to no one and independent of everyone.
Turkey feels it has major stake in any conflict in the Middle East and
it is loath to merely accept Israeli de-facto policies that run contrary
to Turkish national interests. As several Turkish officials lamented,
the strategic alliance with Israel is meaningful only when there is full
and open cooperation between the parties on any issue that may impact
either country’s national strategic interests. But when one side or the
other acts as if the alliance is only one-sided to be exploited then it
becomes at best meaningless but often harmful because of the inherent
strategic interdependency and cooperation between the parties CONTRARY
TO the view that the Syrian authorities only talk about peace but are
not interested in forging one because keeping the tension with Israel
allows Syrian President Bashar Assad to keep his grip on power. From
what we know, Syria is still ready and able to strike a peace agreement
with Israel – not because it is weak and despondent, but because
Damascus understands that its ultimate welfare and wellbeing depend on
improved relations with the West, especially the United States.
Moreover, continued tension with Israel has no strategic value and it
could be utilized tactically and even then only up to a point which may
now have run its course as Israel is becoming militarily stronger and
more prosperous economically. Damascus understands the precariousness of
its position in connection with Iran not only because of Teheran’s
growing international isolation – resulting from its nuclear program –
but also because of the inherent inconsistency with Damascus’s
determination to remain the dominant arbiter over the fate of Lebanon.
Notwithstanding Israel’s skepticism about Syria and especially
Damascus’s close ties with Iran, it appears that Israel’s obsession with
Iran obscured many other options, especially striking a peace agreement
The Netanyahu government today appears to be even farther away from any
of its predecessors from considering a negotiated agreement with Syria
that would of necessity require the return of the Golan. It is true that
considering Israel’s military prowess, Syria will not be able to regain
the Golan by force in the foreseeable future. But this does not suggest
that continued Israeli entrenchment on the Golan will over time create
an irreversible situation that would compel Syria to simply give up its
claim over its territory. Although it is also true that relocating will
require billions of dollars and it would be heartbreaking for many
Israelis, the passage of time will make it only much more expensive and
far more traumatic for the Israelis. Any Israeli government that does
not see far enough into the future and take the necessary measures to
prevent inevitable catastrophic developments, even if the public is not
alarmed by the status quo, will have to answer the judgment of time,
which will be harsh and unforgiving.
Due to the continuing Turkish-Israeli rift that was deepened by the
flotilla incident, the time may not be auspicious for Turkey to resume
its mediating role, but Ankara still is best positioned to mediate
between Syria and Israel – provided there is a government in Israel that
can see the light; a government that is not blinded and self-absorbed,
one that allows itself, time and again, to miss opportunities in the
name of national security – when in fact, by its own shortsightedness is
jeopardizing Israel’s long-term national security concerns.The writer is professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He
teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.