Turkish-Israeli reconciliation has potential to benefit both sides

Both Turkey and Israel regard the Middle East as an inherently volatile region. Their mutual objective for stability helped the sides to end their dispute.

By MORAN STERN
July 4, 2016 20:07
4 minute read.
Israel Turkey

Israel and Turkey flags. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Six years of negotiations between Turkish and Israeli officials to settle the countries’ crisis, which followed the deadly incident on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara in May 2010, ended successfully on Monday.

Overall, the agreement is a good one and important as it serves the countries’ interests amid the region’s dynamics. The resumption of diplomatic normalization, a rare political commodity especially nowadays in the Middle East, should not be taken for granted. The compensation of approximately $20 million to the families of the flotilla’s victims is the price that Israel has to pay for an operation that was heavily criticized in Israel’s internal investigation.

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Moreover, it’s a fair price to pay to restore relations with a regional power such as Turkey.

Contrary to what many Israelis tend to think, power relations between Turkey and Israel are asymmetric. Turkey is a regional power, economic powerhouse, the largest member of NATO in terms of its military personnel, and the key strategic player in the Middle East, Europe and Eurasia. Israel, on the other hand, is regionally isolated and despite its military power it often has difficulty influencing regional political developments in its favor.

In addition, the agreement is expected to lead to increased trade between Israel and Turkey, especially in the public sector.

Furthermore, rapprochement with Turkey is an opportunity for Israel to join, even if unofficially for now, the region’s Sunni bloc of Muslim and Arab countries.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Jordan and Israel share a strong interest to contain Iranian policies in the region and offset Russian meddling in Syria. The agreement can pave a historical path for Israel to become a strategically legitimate actor in Muslim capitals in the region.

The agreement’s inclusion of Turkish humanitarian aid to Gaza also might, in fact, be good for Israel. Despite the enmity between Israel and Hamas, Israel prefers Hamas’ control of Gaza to the likely but far worse alternatives, which include a number of small Jihadi groups as well as affiliates of the Islamic State. Turkish aid will help to improve civilian conditions for Gaza and decrease the Strip’s dependency on Israel as its biggest provider of humanitarian aid and energy.

Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that Turkey would have maintained its support for Hamas regardless of the agreement with Israel, so the accord at least provides that such support will be contingent on some Israeli monitoring.

Despite the agreement, there’s a deep mistrust between the countries’ leaderships and publics. In Israel, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu did nothing to explain the importance of relations with Turkey, especially critical given that the image of Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been severely tarnished in the past decade.


In Turkey, the opposition has criticized Erdogan for surrendering national honor and some family members of the flotilla’s victims threatened to maintain their legal suit against Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

The failure by leaders in both countries to reach out to their respective publics to stress this new chapter in the countries’ relations might explain the accord’s low approval ratings.

Rightfully, Israelis ask themselves how relations with Turkey serve Israel’s security interests when Erdogan has never hesitated to express his hatred of Israel and his support for Hamas. Israelis wonder why their country should pay flotilla victims’ families when the Israeli security establishment had portrayed the victims as violent terrorists acting to kill Israeli soldiers. And they wonder why Israel should consider channeling its natural gas to Europe via Turkey as opposed to friendlier countries, such as Greece and Cyprus.

A major challenge for the countries’ relations will be in the next round of fighting between Israel and Gaza. How, for example, will Turkey respond to the images of destruction and casualties in Gaza? How will Turkey ensure that Hamas does not use the planned Turkish hospital as a launching pad for its missiles? And how will Israel and Turkey manage their relations if Israel is compelled to destroy that hospital in the context of war? Whatever the answers, the real test for the agreement’s resilience is still to come.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is the accord’s biggest loser. While Turkey promised to develop a new industrial zone in the West Bank, the agreement is another nail in the president’s political coffin.

The marginalization of Abbas also concerns the future, if any, of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Turkish working assumption that Hamas, in its current version, must be part of the process is detached from reality. Neither Hamas nor Israel is interested in direct political engagement. It also is unclear to what degree Turkey truly can influence Hamas, which suffers from a deep rift between its hawkish military wing and the more pragmatic political wing.

Both Turkey and Israel regard the Middle East as an inherently volatile region. Their mutual objective for stability helped the sides to end their dispute. The renewed Turkish- Israeli relationship has great potential to yield tangible benefits for both countries.

Nevertheless, the biggest test for the resilience of the Turkish-Israeli agreement is yet to come.

The writer is an adjunct lecturer at the Center for Jewish Civilization in Georgetown University and a PhD candidate in government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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