Ties remain strained, but Turkey, Israel keep on trading

Ahead of elections, Ankara turns down its Israel-bashing rhetoric as Erdogan's party seeks to draw moderate votes.

Abdullah Gul Erdogan 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Abdullah Gul Erdogan 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Just as diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey appear to have hit rock bottom, bilateral trade between Israel and Turkey have reached an all-time high, indicating that commercial interests can trump political differences.
Turkey pulled out its ambassador from Israel almost a year ago and when Israel’s current envoy to Ankara leaves this summer there is no plan to fill his slot. That is in order to “spare us the embarrassment of having the Turks reject him,” in the words of one Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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Salih Bicakci, a professor of international relations at Turkey’s Isik University, described the relations between Israel and Turkey as “a love affair between teenagers.”
“They express themselves by feeling and touching and by pushing and hitting each other. Right now, the leaders of both countries come from right-wing parties and that exacerbates the atmosphere. But also know that they are a necessity for each other, for example, against mutual threats from Iran,” Bicakci told The Media Line.
Once close allies, the two countries enjoyed close diplomatic, military, trade and tourism ties.  But they have grown estranged after Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship participating in a flotilla trying to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip nearly a year ago, killing eight Turks and one American of Turkish descent.
With plans in the works to mark the May anniversary of the deadly assault, the Islamic charity Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) plans to send another flotilla. Israel’s ambassador to Ankara, Gaby Levy, has officially asked Turkey to halt the flotilla since Israel saw it as a provocation.
Nevertheless, there are signs relations could be on the rebound. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has formally invited his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres to attend a United Nations conference on the Least Developed Countries, to be held in Istanbul on May 9.  A spokesman for Peres said a decision on his participation has not yet been made.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Israeli officials told The Media Line that the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has toned down its anti-Israel rhetoric lately, a move they see linked to the upcoming national elections June 12. Ergodan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is going after moderate votes, they said.
“Our understanding is that they are turning toward the center which it turns out didn’t like all this Israel bashing. It only made the AKP look like extremists,” said one official.
Israel has also been cautiously buoyed by the Turkish authorities’ decision in late March to intercept an Iranian cargo jet bound for Syria and force it to land at a Turkish air base. The Turks discovered weapons on board that were suspected to bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite terrorist group and Israeli foe. Turkey filed a complaint with the United Nations.
Even as diplomatic ties chilled during 2010, bilateral trade reached $3.5 billion, up from $1.3 billion just a decade ago. The uptrend has continued into this year. Israel imported some $354 million of Turkish goods in January-February, up from $282 million one year earlier. Meanwhile, Israeli exports to Turkey reached $302 million in the first two months of the year, up from $170 million during the same time in 2010.
Turkey’s main exports to Israel are land vehicles, construction materials, electronic devices, textiles and accessories. Israel exports to Turkey plastics, chemicals and agriculture products.
Ordinary Israelis, however, remain skittish about Turkey. Once a prime destination for Israelis holiday makers, travel to Turkey has plummeted. This year's Passover holiday season has seen travel there drop by nearly 90% from last year, when more than 15,000 Israelis visited Turkish resorts.
With the entire region in the midst of revolutionary upheaval, the democracies of Turkey and Israel have been coveted islands of calm. Washington has not hidden its displeasure with the failure of Ankara and Jerusalem, two of their key allies, to reconcile their differences.
“Turkish-Israeli relations are among the most vitally important relationships in the eastern Mediterranean,” Francis J. Ricciardone, the US ambassador to Turkey, was quoted by the Turkish daily Hurriyet as saying at a meeting on Wednesday with the Diplomatic Correspondents’ Association. “Turkey and Israel are two strong democracies and two close friends of the United States. They need to communicate with each other. That’s the relationship we care about.”
Bicakci said Turks blame much of the current nadir in communication on Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who they see as behind the belligerent treatment of its ambassador and hawkish statements against Ankara. But he speculated that if Ergogan’s AKP party wins the elections, as is expected, the president would likely return an ambassador to Israel and work to restore relations.
The improvement could be undermined should the new aid flotilla to Gaza being organized by IHH set sail either before or after the elections. With Turkish demands for an Israeli apology and compensation to the family of the victims of last year’s flotilla passengers aside, halting the next flotilla would be politically difficult for Erdogan.