Privately and quietly, in discussions among officials and analysts in both
Israel and Turkey, recognition of the need to resume a positive working
relationship is emerging.
As the governments independently evaluate the
turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East, they are finding only two countries
that have a combination of functioning – albeit imperfect – democracies, stable
governance, substantial security apparatuses and thriving economies. But that is
not all they share.
Both are handicapped by their misguided political
rhetoric and posturing when it comes to their bilateral relationship.
the fallout over the flotilla incident last May, Turkish-Israeli relations,
which were already declining, hit rock bottom, and have since failed to
significantly regain their footing. However, the many shared challenges that
both nations face in the region today could serve to bridge the gaps that have
kept their reconciliation at bay and reshape relations.
Rather than serve
to investigate the flotilla incident, the findings of the reports issued by the
Turkel Commission, and the subsequent Turkish report, only reinforced each
side’s ensconced positions. The conclusions were as clearly predictable as they
were contradictory: The Israeli commission stated that “by clearly resisting
capture, the Mavi Marmara had become a military objective” and that “the
passengers were to blame for the violence.”
The Turkish report stated
that IDF soldiers used “excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate
The publication of the conflicting conclusions effectively
overrode the goodwill that had begun to generate in both countries following
Turkey’s assistance to Israel in battling the Mount Carmel forest fire in early
December. Therefore, the status quo has stood firm. Turkey continues to demand
an apology and compensation for the families of the nine Turkish citizens killed
aboard the Mavi Marmara. Israel continues to refuse to do so, while openly
worrying about Turkey’s pledge to deepen its ties with Iran and
BUT COULD this be changing? Last month, the International
Strategic Research Organization, an organization whose directors are considered
to be close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held a panel on the state of
Turkey-Israel relations with Israeli and Turkish panelists. Last week, Deputy
Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is remembered for his treatment of then-
Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, began to change his tone. He told the
European Policy Center in Brussels that Israel and Turkey should stop blaming
one another and instead work to mend relations.
Indeed, in Jerusalem and
Ankara, more and more officials are beginning to realize that, in a region that
is likely to be torn by prolonged uncertainty and conflict, it is in the
interests of both nations to reach accommodation.
The two sides are not
only beginning to recognize their diplomatic follies.
ingredients falling into place suggest now is the time to improve
Business ties had been considered unaffected by the worsening
political relations. But more and more businesses are finding it cumbersome to
launch new ventures in the context of the ongoing political tension. With
economic uncertainty gripping neighboring countries, a renewed push for
strengthened economic ties would be prudent.
Meanwhile, Turkey will face
a nationwide election on June 12. But with the AKP comfortably ahead in the
polls (50 percent) in comparison to the opposition CHP (23%), the expectation
that criticism of Israel may be used as a political tool during the campaign
season has dampened. That Erdogan has largely been silent in his public
chastising of Israel in recent weeks is particularly telling. So too is the
growing realization in Turkey of the need to maintain its foreign policy options
come the day after the election.
Turkish bureaucrats with long-standing
ties with Israeli counterparts have a particular understanding that for Turkey
to extend its influence in the reshaping of the Middle East and beyond, it must
improve its ties with Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the makeup of Israel’s
government is more conducive to an accommodation.
The departure of Uzi
Arad, a fierce critic of Ankara, as national security adviser removes a measure
of criticism from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ears. At the same time,
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, another fierce opponent of reconciling with
Turkey, has become increasingly preoccupied (and weakened) by his pending
indictment on corruption charges. In addition, there is an urgent need for
Israel to improve its international standing, and its relations with the
FINALLY, PERHAPS the most important ingredient to improving relations
is also in place: the passage of time. The raw emotions that accompanied the
flotilla event have begun to subside, even if the nationalist fervor that was
generated has not. In the context of the regional unrest, and the growing sense
on both sides that each must acknowledge the need to look forward, the current
moment could be exploited to begin to lay the foundation for improved relations
– but how? A balance must be achieved between both nations’ desire to save face.
Neither side will make a major concession that gives the appearance it has caved
in to the others’ demands. Turkey would certainly oppose doing so in the context
of an election season; Israel because it wants to avoid appearing weak by making
hasty concessions amidst the regional turmoil. That is why, next month, when the
office of the UN secretary-general will publish its own version of the events
aboard the Mavi Marmara, Israel and Turkey should focus on reaching a new
Reaching such an understanding will require ongoing
back-channel dialogue to agree upon language addressing the flotilla episode in
terms that recognize the conclusions provided by each side, and the need for
appropriate compensation of the victims. Agreed language need not focus on
explicit placement of wrongdoing so much as on the broad recognition of
transgressions and the need to provide an alternative path forward.
this respect, rather than use their respective reports on the flotilla incident
to drive a deeper wedge between their positions, each side should acknowledge
the perspective of the other as part of the path forward. Achieving progress in
this regard will be especially important in advance of the publication of the UN
report, to ensure that it serves as an endnote to this dark chapter.
THE wake of the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, many analysts have looked to Turkey as
a potential model for Egypt, and the reshaping Arab Middle East at large. Of
course, each nation has its own individual attributes, but it is true that
Turkey, as a democracy balancing Islamic tradition with modernity and economic
growth, does provide part of the illustration of what a new Middle East might
look like. But even more than a model, Turkey should serve to provide important
lessons to the peoples of the Middle East: For the reshaping Arab world, the
lessons should be that the formation of democracy and its balance with Islam, is
an ongoing, arduous process, but can ultimately lead to economic prosperity and
renewed confidence for the peoples of the Middle East.
For Israel the
lesson should be equally clear: In a region that may soon look more and more
like Turkey, it is time to make peace with the original.
In extolling the
virtues of relations between democracies in his book A Durable Peace
Netanyahu wrote: “The whole idea of politics in democratic states is the
nonviolent resolution of conflict – not harmonious agreement, not even tolerable
disagreement, but the dynamic reconciliation of opposing views and conflicting
That is exactly the kind of understanding that is needed
between Turkey and Israel. It is time for Netanyahu to act on his own
advice.The writer is professor of international relations at the Center
for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle
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