Analysis: Will Syrian issue warm Israeli-Turkish ties?

IHH to announce if it will drop participation in Gaza flotilla; experts warn turn-around in Turkey’s attitude doesn't reflect thaw in tense relations.

Mavi Marmara in port 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Mavi Marmara in port 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
What a difference a year has made.
At the end of May 2010, just a year ago, the IDF had to forcibly board a private Turkish ship, bearing that country’s flag, as it attempted to illegally enter Gaza with humanitarian supplies. Nine Turkish citizens who resisted the IDF were killed in the raid.
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After initially defending the right of activists to sail once again for Gaza, earlier this month Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged the flotilla organizers to halt their plans.
He asked them to wait instead until it could be determined Gaza life had improved in light of last month’s opening of the Rafah crossing, along with recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
In response, the Turkish group IHH said it would reconsider its participation in the flotilla.
Adam Shapiro of the Free Gaza Movement, who is an organizer of the second Gaza Flotilla, said the IHH will give an official announcement at a press conference on Friday on whether or not it will join the flotilla. The rest of 10 ships on the flotilla will likely set sail for Gaza regardless, Shapiro said.
In addition, on Thursday, in coordination with the IDF, a truckload of medical supplies bearing the seal of the Turkish Red Crescent entered Gaza from Israel.
But Turkish experts in Israel warn that the turn-around in Turkey’s attitude does not reflect a thaw in the tense and troubled relationship between the two countries.
It should be seen instead as a reaction to regional events – particularly the flow of thousands of Syrian refugees into Turkey – and the possible disintegration of the Syrian regime.
Moshe Maoz, an Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies professor at Hebrew University, said Turkey is still angry at Israel over last year’s flotilla raid, and is still demanding an apology.
“The rage is still there,” he said.
But this year, all of Turkey’s energies are focused on Syria, said Alon Liel, who was Israel’s Charge d’Affaires in Ankara, and the former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.
“Turkey is overwhelmed now with the problems that are going on in Syria,” he said.
Outside of the influx of refugees, it is seeking to distance itself from Syrian President Bashar Assad, Liel said. There is also the possibility of military intervention in Syria by the international community. Additionally, Turkey is very involved with what is happening in Egypt, he said.
In the run-up to the election last Saturday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan toned down his anti-Israel rhetoric to woo the secular Western vote.
Experts speculated that the absence of tension between the two countries could in and of itself help foster a better atmosphere that could open the door to a more positive relationship.
Efrat Aviv, a lecturer at Bar Ilan University whose research focuses on Turkey, said it was possible that Turkish-Israeli ties could improve in the future.
Turkish attitudes toward the flotilla and Israel could have been influenced by the United States, which had offered it a larger role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if it took steps to halt another Gaza flotilla.
It is important to note, she said, that Turkey is a world power with ties to America and China. It has been a mediator in other conflicts, such as the one between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the past, it mediated between Israel and Syria. If it wants to play a role now as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, it has to adopt a more balanced attitude towards Israel.