Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled openness to renewed relations with Israel over the weekend. Returning from a trip to Turkmenistan, he told reporters that there was an opening for “normalization” with Jerusalem if certain issues that Turkey has long demanded are resolved. “There is much the region could gain from such a normalization process.”
The importance of this invitation should not be underestimated.
Erdogan is in a process of re-positioning Turkey in the region amid the rise of Iran. It is no surprise that Iran’s Press TV was smitten in reporting that Israeli officials had spurned Turkey’s advances. They quoted an Israeli official as saying “the Turks are isolated…it seems that Ankara wants to normalize relations with Israel, and is especially interested in a gas deal.”
The policy of writing off the Turkish comments and bragging over Turkish isolation is not helpful to Israel’s relations in the region. Israel sits at a delicate crossroads now in the region. Beginning in 1977, Israel was able to break down the iron wall of rejectionism that had greeted the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
In the 1990s there was a brief flowering of relations as Israel cultivated ties not only in Amman, but also in Tunisia, Morocco and the Gulf. Unfortunately, the second intifada, the Mavi Marmara affair and other issues have caused setbacks in Israel’s relations with one country after another.
Instead of bold diplomacy to calm these waters, there is a stubborn, narrow-minded arrogance of wanting to save face and not make Israel look weak in the face of demands from these countries. Turkey wants compensation for those killed on the Marmara, Jordan has demanded strict adherence to a status quo on the Temple Mount. Even with the impasse over the issues, Israel has improved relations with the United Arab Emirates, and it has been cultivating its existing ties with Egypt.
Why is now the time for bold diplomacy? The region is seeing an unprecedented series of peace efforts in various conflicts that may signal a shift toward a new era. In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, there was an outbreak of chaos in the region. Iraq and Syria ceased to exist in any sense of functioning states. Yemen and Libya collapsed. Into that vacuum has come an unprecedented series of power-grabs by Iran, whose octopus-like policy spreads from Aden to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Russian intervention in Syria has changed the equation in that conflict.
Now Syrian opposition groups have gathered in Riyadh to work on a unified front for discussions with the Assad regime. “This is the widest participation for the opposition, inside and outside Syria,” Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, told reporters four days ago. This comes amidst a ceasefire in Homs between the increasingly strained rebels and the regime forces. At the same time, a UN-backed ceasefire has begun in Yemen. Representatives of Saudi- backed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Iranian-backed Houthis and other players have met in Switzerland. There is a reason for a ceasefire. The Saudis and their Gulf allies are losing blood and treasure in Yemen, and Iran is stuck in the Syrian morass without the resources to oversee its allies in the civil war there.
In addition, 17 countries signed onto supporting a ceasefire in Libya that would create a national unity government in the face of a threat from Islamic State.
Finally, the world is looking forward, noting that Islamic State could easily emerge in Libya just as it is being slowly strangled in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey remains an important lynchpin in this whole equation. Reeling from its failed policies in Syria and its embrace of “neo-Ottomanism,” Erdogan has opened a new window to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, recently met with Erdogan in Ankara, and it was revealed that Turkey was maintaining a small military base in northern Iraq near Mosul, training Arab soldiers for the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State, in partnership with the Kurds. Kurds, Turks, Israelis and Saudis have common interests on a series of fronts.
Israel has an opportunity to play a role in blunting Iran’s advance alongside regional partners that have mutual goals. It is time for Jerusalem to swallow its pride and make strategic decisions for the future of Israel in the Middle East.