The Turkish Turnaround

A potential upturn in Turkish-Israeli relations bodes well for Israel.

Turkish Turnaround (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Turkish Turnaround (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
In early July, Israel's Channel 2 TV political commentator Amnon Abramovitch dropped a diplomatic bombshell, claiming that mediation for the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, being held by Hamas militants, is now in the hands of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
So far, neither the Turks nor the Israelis have denied the report, and the chances are that it is true. If so, it constitutes a dramatic turnaround in Israeli-Turkish relations, irrespective of the outcome of the mediation effort.
That such a significant change has occurred almost defies belief.
Over the past two and half years, Erdogan has been one of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government’s most vociferous critics. So much so that he is universally reviled in Israel. He has described Israeli government policy as “state terror”; called for Israel’s expulsion from the UN; and even proposed putting Iran and Israel in the same nuclear basket – all of which made banner headlines in both Turkey and Israel. Given these persistent outbursts, it would, on the face of it, seem unthinkable for the government of Israel to entrust Erdogan with any mediation effort, let alone one as sensitive as the proposed Shalit prisoner exchange.
For their part, Erdogan and his government have consistently and categorically insisted that any improvement in Israeli-Turkish ties is conditional on a public Israeli apology for the “Mavi Marmara” affair – in which nine Turkish activists aboard one of several vessels trying to run Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza were killed by Israeli naval commandos in May last year. Initial informal feelers to Erdogan on the Shalit mediation all got the same response: Apologize first for the “Mavi Marmara.”
So if Erdogan really is mediating in the Shalit case now, something very dramatic must have happened, the precise details of which are still hazy. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to assume that the “Arab Spring” and especially the “Syrian Spring” helped pave the way. The turmoil in the Muslim world has significantly altered Turkish attitudes to both Libya and Syria. Turkey’s foreign policy of “zero problems” in the Middle East suddenly found itself embroiled in troubles it had never anticipated. And this, it seems, prompted a rethink in attitudes to Israel.
The first serious signaling of a change of attitude towards Israel came with the cancellation of the “Mavi Marmara’s” participation in this year’s flotilla to Gaza. This took the sting out of the whole affair. And it could well be the case that the Turkish pullout from the flotilla is part of a larger deal with Israel, which includes the Shalit mediation. The very fact that Erdogan has refrained from attacking Israel in public for the past few months is in itself another promising sign.
Assuming this picture is true – even if only partly – what can we expect over the coming weeks with regard to Turkey-Israel ties? We need to be very careful about making projections, since there is a lot we still don’t know. But there are a number of interesting facts we can already see in the mix.
The UN Secretary General’s Commission of Inquiry into the May 2010 flotilla is about to publish its findings. The Israeli and Turkish representatives on the commission, Yosef Ciechanover and Ozdem Sanberk, have already told their respective governments to expect scathing criticism. Over and above that, however, it seems that Ciechanover and Sanberk used their time together to hammer out a new Israeli-Turkish understanding to accompany the UN report. If this is the case, such an understanding will very quickly relegate the report to the sidelines.
Its components will likely include: The appointment of new ambassadors to Tel Aviv and Ankara after a long delay; renewal of the strategic dialogue between the two countries, suspended towards the end of 2008, and which has again become especially relevant in light of what is happening in the Muslim world; an Israeli apology for last year’s flotilla imbroglio; and, to top it all, official confirmation of the Turkish mediation in the Shalit affair. Announcing an Israeli- Turkish deal of this magnitude will be a major achievement for the Netanyahu government, especially if it occurs before the anticipated UN vote on the recognition of Palestine in September.
But it would be remiss to describe the surprising upturn in Turkish-Israeli relations without mentioning another backroom architect – US President Barack Obama. It is no secret that, over the past few months, the United States has devoted a great deal of energy toward restoring its ties with Turkey. Alexander Vershbow, the assistant secretary of state for International Security Affairs, made this abundantly clear in Washington in late June, while presenting a picture of renewed strategic dialogue between Washington and Ankara. There can be no doubt that, over the past several weeks, this dialogue included many hours of discussion on the Turkey-Israel issue, especially in light of the chaos in the Middle East.
If Israel and Turkey are in the throes of rebuilding their strategic marriage, Obama has been their counselor.

Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director general, has just published his sixth book on Turkey, Turkish-Israeli Relations: 1949- 2010, co-authored with Can Yirik, a research fellow at the Istanbul-based Global Political Trends Center.