Six consequences of Israel's six-year fight with Turkey

Tourism plummeted, business boomed, Israel's relations with Cyprus and Greece took off and more.

Mavi Marmara, 2010 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mavi Marmara, 2010
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Mavi Marmara flotilla incident that sent diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel into a tailspin took place six years ago, on May 31, 2010.
Here are six unintended, but significant, consequences of that rupture:
• Tourism plummeted
In 2008, Turkey was the favorite vacation destination for Israelis, who took advantage of all-inclusive packages in areas like Antalya, where Hebrew signs appeared in shops and hotels catered to Israelis. Some 560,000 Israelis, or about 8 percent of the population at the time, vacationed in Turkey that year.
In 2009 that number already started to taper off as Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric toward Israel following Operation Cast Lead became increasingly caustic and nasty. That year the numbers dropped to 332,000, and then took a complete tumble in 2011, the year after the Mavi Marmara incident, when only 79,000 tourists visited Turkey, an 85% decrease from 2008.
Since then the numbers have recovered somewhat, but are nowhere near what they were in 2008. Last year some 224,000 Israelis visited the country, still 60% less than the Golden Days.
• Business boomed
Despite the breakdown of diplomatic ties, business between the two countries soared.
If in 2009 – the year before the Mavi Marmara – the two countries did some $2.6 billion in bilateral trade, by 2014 that number jumped to $5.4 billion, though it dropped to $4.2 billion last year. The ties between the governments may have soured, but the relationship between the two business communities only became stronger.
• Israel served as physical bridge between Turkey and the Gulf
Turkey may not have sent an ambassador back to Tel Aviv for six years, but every month it was sending hundreds of trucks to Haifa, packed with goods and merchandise, which then drove across the country to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing near Beit She’an, and from there to points east.
One of the fallouts of the Syrian Civil War was that Turkey, which exports a great deal to Arab countries and the Persian Gulf, could no longer drive overland to Syria and from there to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries. It needed an alternative bridge, and found one in Israel. Last year more than 10,000 Turkish trucks used this route.
• Israel’s relations with Cyprus and Greece took off
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled earlier this year to Nicosia, where he shook hands with the leaders of Cyprus and Greece in a high-profile photo-op, and announced the emergence of a mini-regional alliance. Rapprochement with Turkey was the indirect midwife of this alliance.
While ties with Cyprus and Greece had begun to improve considerably even before the Mavi Marmara incident – mainly because of the discovery of the natural gas reserves off of Israel’s coast – ties with both countries took off enormously afterward.
The breakdown of ties with Turkey sent a signal to Cyprus and Greece – both biter historic rivals of Turkey – that Israel would be interested in a significant warming of ties, further proving that well-worn axiom that in the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Moreover, with Greece’s economy in shambles, Athens was looking for friends in the worst way.
• Israel’s military cooperation with Romania and Bulgaria received a boost
One of the biggest losses for Israel as a result of the breakdown of ties with Turkey was the loss of the lucrative Turkish weapons market, a market worth billions and billions of dollars. In the immediate wake of the Mavi Marmara, Ankara canceled more than a dozen arms deals with Israel that at the time were reported to have been worth more than $50 billion.
Another, less discussed or appreciated aspect of Israel’s ties with Turkey was the ability of IAF pilots to train in Turkish airspace.
The IAF pilots need a place to train, and Israel’s airspace is too small. For years the pilots trained over Turkey, but when that ended almost immediately after the flotilla incident, other locales were sought and found in Romania and reportedly in Bulgaria as well.
It is no coincidence that Netanyahu was the first sitting prime minister to visit Romania and Bulgaria in two decades, when he went there in July 2011, a year after the flotilla incident.
The IAF first began training over Romanian skies in 2004, and signed an agreement in 2006 allowing Israel to deploy fighter jets there. Following Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the sharp deterioration in ties with Ankara already then, Israel began looking for other countries where its pilots could train, since it became obvious that the days of being able to fly in Turkish skies were numbered.
• US Jewish groups began to acknowledge
Armenian Genocide Over the last six years, Jewish groups in the US which in the past had not supported recognizing the Armenian genocide started to do so.
The issue burst into the headlines in 2007, when then ADL head Abe Foxman fired the organization’s regional director in Boston for telling a newspaper he opposed the ADL’s long-standing refusal to recognize the massacres of the Armenians as genocide.
Foxman came under a barrage of criticism, and backtracked, but then came under criticism from some in Israel concerned that this would negatively affect Israel-Turkey ties.
Turkey’s ambassador to Israel at the time, Namik Tan, even told The Jerusalem Post that Ankara expected Israel to “deliver” the American Jewish community, and ensure that the US Congress does not pass a resolution characterizing the massacre of Armenians during World War I as genocide.
Seven years later, in 2014, the ADL recognized the genocide, and the American Jewish Committee did the same a short time later. In 2015 the Jewish Council for Public Affairs adopted a Resolution on Armenian Genocide that calls on the US Congress and president to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Congress has still not passed the resolution, but that no longer has anything to do with prominent Jewish groups opposing the move.