Save our ties with Turkey

The moment the last vote is counted in Ankara’s elections this June, Israel must act to heal relations

Turkey PM Erdogan 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Turkey PM Erdogan 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the most important and urgent diplomatic challenges Israel faces today is the prevention of the continued deterioration of ties with Turkey, and the quest to return the relationship to what it once was.
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The Turkish government’s mobilization in fighting the massive Carmel fire in December, when it sent two firefighting planes, could have served as a catalyst in renewing discreet dialogue between the two countries. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and thanked him for the humanitarian gesture. Immediately after, Israeli and Turkish representatives met in Geneva in an attempt to come up with a redeeming formula that would advance a solution to the continued crisis.
But the dialogue did not lead to a breakthrough. Erdogan remains firm in his resolve that Israel must issue an official, public apology for causing the deaths of nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara, and compensate the victims’ families. Israel still finds it difficult to meet the Turkish demands, apparently because of Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman’s reservations, and because of the sense that the public would not view such a pragmatic move favorably.
In June, Turkey will hold general elections. It is difficult to find a single expert on Turkey who believes these elections will weaken Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The far reaching support for Erdogan in a referendum conducted last September on constitutional change underscored the weakness of the secular Kemalist parties that oppose the Islamic government.
Presumably there will be no change in the hard line taken by the Turkish leadership before the next elections. Demonstrations hostile to Israel have proven to be an electoral asset in Turkish politics. Though this is not the only explanation for the growing estrangement between the countries since Operation Cast Lead, Erdogan did sharpen his remarks, as well as his actions, against Israel when he recognized that such policies strengthened his popularity. There is reason to believe that as the weight of such considerations diminish, after the elections, wider considerations will take on more weight.
I AM aware that there are those who believe it is too late to stop the process of alienation between Turkey and Israel. Their approach is based on the assessment that the change Turkey is experiencing reflects a larger historic process – part of the growing cultural extremism of the Muslim world. According to this view, Erdogan’s government is only expressing, in a blatant and non-diplomatic way, the deeper ideological flux that is cutting off Turkey from the secular and Western camp and steadily drawing it closer to the more radical camp led by Iran and Syria.
According to this assessment, once the army ceased serving as a shield for Turkish secularism, and began to invest most of its energies in a rearguard action designed to preserve at least some of its traditional authority, Israel lost the central, institutional force that had nurtured the strategic relationship between it and Turkey.
Though one should not disparage this evaluation, in my opinion there are forces no less stronger that influence Turkey in the opposite direction. Turkey has a profound interest in retaining, at all costs, its economic achievements; these, more than any other factor, determine the capacity of the Islamic party to retain the leadership. And economic success is dependent on a continued close relationship with the US and Europe.
Current Turkish policies have already raised criticism in both the US Congress and in a number of prominent countries in the European Union. The recall of the Turkish ambassador from Israel after the flotilla to Gaza; Israel’s exclusion from the joint Anatolian Eagle military exercise; Turkish attempts to thwart the world’s effort to tighten sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program – all these raised questions in the international arena concerning the direction in which Ankara is headed.
Among the dilemmas that have arisen is whether to allow Turkey to retain its membership of NATO, which it has held for more than 50 years, in light of its warming ties to Iran. The voices raised against Turkey receiving membership in the European Union are also strengthening.
I BELIEVE that Turkey retains a great interest in continuing to act as a strategic bridge between the West and the East. It wishes to emphasize its status as a regional superpower but not to join up with those Arab elements that wish to undermine the stability of the Middle East. It is aiming to strengthen its Muslim character, but not at the expense of democratic values and modernity.
Therefore, we should not give up on Turkey as a friendly country which sees eye-to-eye with us on a number of essential issues, from the fight against terror – which threatens both countries – to the understanding that the nuclear race in the region poses a common threat.
The Turkish interest in ending the bilateral crisis and turning over a new leaf is no smaller than the Israeli interest. Nevertheless, Israel should take the lead. As soon as the dust of the Turkish elections settles, Israel should initiate an effort to build renewed trust between the countries.
Erdogan’s government indeed contributed to the crisis when it turned a blind eye, and perhaps even gave the green light to the provocation of the fanatical Turkish organization, the IHH, which initiated the flotilla to Gaza.
Indeed, the well-planned violence carried out on the Mavi Marmara against the IDF’s naval commandos is what led to the tragic outcome of the confrontation. But in the complex, diplomatic world, sometimes greater, more important interests should be preferred over a steadfast, uncompromising adherence to a utopian justice. More than once Israel has demonstrated its ability to differentiate between essential and non-essential considerations and take a realistic position rather than fortifying itself behind a just position.
That’s exactly how the government acted when it reversed its policy of hermetically sealing the Gaza Strip, in order to prevent a grave falling out with the international community, including countries with which we share a very close relationship.
This is how we should act in relation to the terms Turkey has set in order to end the crisis.Obviously, Israel too has its own demands, and will surely know how to express them and stand firm on them. However, it must be kept uppermost in mind that time is time is of the essence in resolving the dispute. The desire to prevent a strategic partner – as Turkey has been to Israel for so many years – from becoming a hostile and even enemy state, must supersede any secondary considerations.
The moment the last ballot in the Turkish elections is counted, in less than 100 days, Israel must abandon its passive stance and initiate a creative and conciliatory approach.
The writer is a former Kadima minister.