A Turkish-Israeli opportunity?

Israel and Turkey's shared investment in Syria offers context to repair strained relations.

The ice is melting (photo credit: Avi Katz)
The ice is melting
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
What an unbelievable year was 2011 for us here in the Middle East – almost nothing looks the same any more. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Iraq – and this is by no means a final list.
For Israel itself the dramatic upheaval in Egypt, as well as the downgrading of its relations with Turkey and the deteriorating civil war in Syria, are especially earthshaking. As we are still awaiting the third round of the first democratic elections in Egypt (the Islamic victory, in fact, has already been achieved) it seems clear that 2011 has seen growing Middle Eastern isolation for Israel.
The Turkish-Israeli link –The Israeli- Turkish picture looks very gloomy. The bilateral relations between the two countries suffered during 2011, the third official downgrading in over six decades of an ongoing historic diplomatic link. We definitely find ourselves during one of the worst periods in the relations between the two countries. The 15-year-old strategic dialogue is gone, and with it important security ties. Civilian trade is still there, but it’s difficult to know for how long.
In Israel, we keep asking ourselves what did we do wrong in our relations with Turkey? The answer here is usually: “We did nothing wrong – it is the massive internal political-cultural change inside Turkey that triggered the negative change towards Israel.”
The Turkish-Israeli deterioration is linked, of course, to the internal changes inside Turkey, but it is still the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories and the lack of visible prospects towards peace, which, more than anything else, clouds bilateral relations. Among other issues, Turkey sees the removal of the siege on Gaza as an extremely important issue, and has stated so publicly very often.
While analyzing the rift we should always remember that today’s gloomy Israeli-Palestinian background is very different from the regional optimism that triggered the surprising Turkish-Israeli alliance during the 1990s.
The future of Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad was never a friend of Israel and losing him will not cause tears to be shed in Jerusalem (as losing Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak certainly did). Israel will be glad to see Assad go. More than anything else in the Syrian-Israeli context, Israel is very pleased to see nobody demanding the Golan Heights at this stage – and certainly there could be no demands to hand over the Golan to Assad, if his regime manages to survive.
However, the civil war in Syria has reached a worrisome stage. The Iranians might increase their control in this torn-apart country. The Turkish and Israeli interests in the Syrian context are becoming almost identical. Both countries would like to see Assad fall at this stage and be replaced by a moderate leadership that will move away from Tehran. This is not an easy goal to achieve while Russia and China block any co-coordinated UN military operation against Assad.
Turkey and Israel both border on Syria and might be negatively affected by the result of ongoing Syrian turmoil, or even by the survival of the cruel Assad’s regime. Lack of coordination between Turkey and Israel at this stage is helping Assad in his struggle to survive. Israeli-Turkish coordination, on the other hand, might force Assad’s army to redeploy in a way that may benefit the rebels. These issues on the Syrian front create an Israeli-Turkish opportunity that should be thoroughly explored.
The departure of Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi from the Mideast scene, and the feeling that Assad might sooner or later be removed too, are making things extremely fluid in our region. The fact that Erdogan’s Turkey sees itself as a leading regional power, with a clear interest in shaping the region ideologically, creates a new regional agenda for both Israel and Turkey. If there is a thaw in the frozen Jerusalem-Ankara ties, this new, sometimes common, agenda created by the “Arab Spring” could reach far beyond bilateral relations.
Expectations, though, should not run too high – the relations between Israel and Turkey will not suddenly turn around as the grievances are still deep. It is likely that any improvement in ties will come about via contacts on the Turkish intelligence-Mossad channel, rather via conventional diplomatic channels.
The intelligence channel, or even an unofficial “Track 2” channel, might deliver better results and it is definitely worth trying.
Alon Liel served as the director general of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs during the Ehud Barak government (2000- 2001). He is the author of several books about Turkey among them: ‘Turkey in the Middle East: Oil Islam and Politics’ (2001), ‘Demo-Islam – A new Regime in Turkey’ (2003), and ‘Turkish- Israeli Relations 1949-2010’ (2010).