The apology: A Turkish-Jewish perspective

First person: As many cheer the pending normalization process, they know it is based on strategic interests.

Thanks Erdogan for Israel apology billboards 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Thanks Erdogan for Israel apology billboards 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
ISTANBUL – When the news of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s apology broke, a sigh of relief spread across the tiny Jewish community of Turkey.
Despite keeping a low profile, this community of fewer than 20,000 people has gone through an emotional roller coaster since Operation Cast Lead, the subsequent drama at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, and later the 2010 IDF raid on the Gaza flotilla. In the days following those events, Turkish Jews witnessed numerous anti-Israel demonstrations at which anti-Semitic slogans were openly chanted in the streets, and watched TV series that depicted Jewish villains (some non-Israeli) – including a show on the official state channel TRT.
In four short years – from receiving orders from the Ministry of Education to observe a minute of silence for the “Palestinian child victims of Israel” at every school, including the Jewish community school in Istanbul, to walking past street billboards that read, “You cannot be the offspring of Moses!” in Jewish-populated neighborhoods, to provocative pushes from the local media to pick a side in numerous bitter exchanges of words between Turkish and Israeli officials – the centuries-old community had had enough already.
Starting with the synagogue bombings of 2003, the past decade has seen a surge in anti-Semitic rhetoric across the spectrum in Turkey, reaching levels unseen since the 1940s. Yet at the same time, the AKP government has shown an unprecedented openness to dialogue and cooperation with the Jewish community, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated willingness to draw a line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism has helped reduce the anxiety among the members of our community.
While a minority of Turkish Jews chose to leave the country in recent years, the majority stayed and braved the stormy weather.
We are proud that Turkey, for decades, has served as a model for cooperation and friendship between Muslim countries and Israel. We believe that as the Arab Spring deconstructs old models of governance in Arab countries, Turkey can provide the Arabs with a stable and progressive model of nation-building in the Middle East.
While much of the press portrayed the recent rift between Turkey and Israel as unprecedented, the history of their bilateral relations has actually been anything but smooth – a product of Turkey’s struggle to balance and rebalance delicate relationships in a volatile region.
Turkish Jews still remember Turkey’s “no” vote on the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, which gave birth to the only Jewish state in modern times. However, they also cherish Turkey for having become the first Muslim-majority state to recognize Israel only a year and a half after the UN vote.
The years that followed have witnessed the repeated downgrading and upgrading of diplomatic ties, fluctuating among full ambassadorial, charge d’affaires, legation, and the second secretary. In fact, the relationship has been so bipolar that only a few weeks ago – during behind-the-scenes negotiations for the apology – Erdogan suddenly labeled Zionism a “crime against humanity” comparable to “fascism.” It was a statement that shocked many Jews not only because it singled out Jewish yearning for self-determination as a crime (without condemning any other form of nationalism), but also compared a historical European movement aimed at providing Jews with a safe haven from persecution, to a contemporary movement that produced the largest-scale genocide of Jews in history.
While these remarks drew international criticism, the officially apolitical Turkish- Jewish community avoided making any statement on the topic. That is also probably because Turkish Jews feel the Judeo- Turkish relationship is too complex and deeply rooted to be sacrificed to some quotidian political rhetoric.
Similarly the community remained silent on Israel’s apology for the operational errors during the flotilla raid. However, when I reached out to community leadership, I found that it was very pleased with Israel’s decision. A representative said she “welcome[s] the recent development and look[s] forward to seeing the relations between the two countries strengthen further.”
The views are more elaborate in the private sphere. A Jewish businessman, who did not want to be named, shared his delight at Israel’s decision and hoped to see more of the reconciliatory tone on both sides.
“All else aside, it is good for the business – for Turks and Israelis alike,” he said.
The normalization of relations is primarily realpolitik.
In his Monday column in the HaberTürk daily, Soli Özel – the Middle East expert at the International Strategic Research Organization and a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University – pointed to the rise in Turkey’s clout under the current government.
“Netanyahu realized that he is facing a new Turkey with new rules of engagement,” he wrote.
By giving in to the apology demand, Israel also understood that the way to Turkey’s heart was through its emotional character. For instance, following the apology, the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality sponsored street billboards that read, “Our Dear Prime Minister, we thank you for giving our country this pride: Israel has apologized to Turkey.”
The Turkish-Israeli relations have always been based on strategic interests, and Turkey’s attitude toward Israel is determined much more by macro events than by bilateral issues. For example, it was right after the first OPEC oil embargo that Turkey actively supported the infamous UN Resolution 3379, declaring Zionism “a form of racism”; and it was just when the Communist bloc collapsed and the Gulf War broke that Turkey welcomed the passing of UN Resolution 46/86, which revoked Resolution 3379. In fact, the liberal, pro-US decade of the 1990s has been a boon for Turkish-Israeli relations.
So it should come as no surprise that Turkey’s vocal opposition to Israeli policies have coincided with Ankara taking a more active leadership role in the Muslim world, and the subsequent rapprochement has come at a crucial time: With the serious security risks emanating from Syria and Iran, a seamless Turkish-Israeli-American coordination of military and intelligence assets benefits all three countries.
Is true reconciliation wishful thinking? “I don’t think the AKP government approves of Israeli policies,” said Gila Benmayor when I asked if she thought the official shift in attitude would be permanent.
As a columnist for Hürriyet, one of the most popular Turkish daily newspapers, she supports the efforts to reconcile.
“When it comes to strategic interests, Shimon Peres got it right in the interview he gave [to Turkish news outlets] on Sunday,” she said. “Past is dead. Now we look forward!” Peres is right because, at present, that is the only rational way. With uncertainty looming over Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and Iran’s alleged nuclear arms program, Turkey and Israel, as the only democracies in the Middle East, cannot continue bickering forever at the expense of vital strategic interests.
“But we shouldn’t ever expect relations to go back to the 1990s,” Özel argued when I asked him about the future of bilateral relations. “At best, they will be like in the 1949-1991 period but conducted strictly on economic and strategic terms.... The relations are still fragile. I don’t think the fundamentals of this rapprochement are strong enough to withstand the next military operation by Israel.”
On the whole, we have seen it all. We have seen Turkey and Israel at their best during the earthquake diplomacy of 1999 and firefighting diplomacy of 2010, and at their worst during the humiliating “low stool” drama that deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon staged in Jerusalem and Erdogan’s recent “Zionism” attack in Vienna.
After all is said and done, it is a relief to leave behind the flotilla incident. We can all take a relaxing breath... and hold it until the next crisis erupts. If history is indicative of the future, there will be many more crisis moments between the two countries – and worst comes to worst, there will always be the US to step in as the responsible parent and do some arm-twisting to make the two sides shake hands. I guess we can live with that.
But of course, there is an even better alternative. Now is the optimal time for Erdogan to use his credibility on the Arab street toward peace and security in the region. By not backing down from his demands for three years and leveraging the macro environment wisely in Turkey’s favor, he has negotiated a solution with Israelis, which most Turks see as fair and as a source of pride. Now is the time to tell the Arabs that there is a peaceful way of negotiating solutions with Israel, one based on goodwill and persistence – and one in which you don’t lose face at home.The writer, who has a BA in political science from Yale and an MBA from Harvard, is a pharmaceutical executive, healthcare consultant and freelance journalist. His blog can be viewed at