Is Turkish-Israeli reconciliation imminent?

Above the Fray: Both regional democracies have much to gain from mutual rapprochement.

istanbul water view 311 (photo credit: Elana Kirsh)
istanbul water view 311
(photo credit: Elana Kirsh)
That Israeli and Turkish officials have begun to renew dialogue at a time of significant uncertainty and turmoil in the broader Middle East is, of course, no coincidence. Israel and Turkey are rare anchors of stability in an increasingly volatile region. With the Arab Spring, the two countries’ shared strategic interests are becoming ever clearer, particularly with the ongoing unrest in neighboring Syria. These interests are serving to catapult both sides over the obstacles that have hindered their reconciliation since the incident aboard the Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010. With renewed understanding of the benefits of their close cooperation, Israel-Turkey reconciliation, should reason prevail, is imminent.
There has been a recent flurry of public signals between Israeli and Turkish officials. First, the IHH, the organizer of last year’s Gaza-bound flotilla, announced that the Mavi Marmara ship would not be participating in an upcoming flotilla, under pressure from Turkish government officials. Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a congratulatory note for his reelection victory on June 12, stating, “My government will be happy to work with the new Turkish government on finding a resolution to all outstanding issues between our countries, in the hope of reestablishing our cooperation and renewing the spirit of friendship which has characterized the relations between our peoples for many generations.”
Reports then surfaced that Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon had held private discussions with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu regarding a government-to-government reconciliation document. Most recently, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who infamously humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Israel in front of reporters last year by placing him on a lower seat, told a group of Turkish reporters visiting Jerusalem that “I believe what we have lost over the past few years is trust. Now we need to let go of this mutual blame game as to why this trust was lost.”
DESPITE THIS explosion of public reports of dialogue, private, secret channels have been consistently pursued ever since the flotilla incident. What has prevented a resolution of the dispute until now has been Turkey’s insistence on an Israeli apology and compensation to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara. Back-channel efforts have produced numerous drafts of nuanced statements of Israeli acknowledgment, but Jerusalem has refused to issue an outright apology, as its internal investigation concluded that the IDF soldiers aboard the ship had operated in self-defense. In particular, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has opposed an apology on the grounds that it implies the IDF made mistakes where it did not; whereas Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, known for his lack of sympathy toward Turkey, has opposed the notion of an apology on principle alone.
In spite of the stalemate on reaching suitable language for a reconciliation document, the sides have maintained considerable ties. Although Turkey’s ambassador has yet to return to Tel Aviv, and Israeli tourists have all but entirely stopped traveling to Turkish coastal towns, Israel has kept Ambassador Gabi Levy in Ankara, and business ties have advanced. In fact, bilateral trade increased by 25 percent between 2009 and 2010, and by 40% in the first quarter of 2011. With the foundation of their historic relations keeping private communications flowing and economic ties growing, what has been needed to break the political impasse is a clear reflection of urgency to place their shared interests above their nationalist political postures.
That is exactly what has happened as a result of the Arab Spring. Turkey understands that if it wants to play a leadership role in the Middle East, in particular in the wake of the uprisings, and still influence Israel’s policy, then it has no choice but to deal with Israel as a key player in resolving several regional conflicts – including those along Turkey’s borders. Ankara also realizes that its outreach to the region’s dictatorial regimes has not been entirely successful. There are growing concerns among Turks that bilateral ties forged with the nations of the Arab world are not actually based on any solid foundation. Uncertainty is particularly gripping Syria, whose ties with Turkey have grown exponentially in recent years. If the Assad regime collapses, which is likely, the repercussions for Turkey will be significant, as the influx of Syrian refugees across the open border with Turkey already demonstrates.
TURKEY TODAY is in need of stability – and Israel has it. But until now, Ankara has been unable to move forward in reestablishing ties, in part because of the continued populist rhetoric of its election season. With Erdogan’s reelection emboldening the AK Party’s leadership, he now has increased leverage to reestablish ties with Israel from a position of even greater strength than before, and in doing so, to stake Turkey’s claim to regional leadership.
For Israel, the benefits of renewed ties are also clear. Turkey can assist the country on a plethora of issues concerning its national security, from the Palestinian attempts to gain recognition at the United Nations, to Hamas’s political platform and the makeup of the Palestinian unity government, to the unrest in Syria, to the nuclear ambitions of Iran.
In all of these areas, Turkey can play a vital role – and it is eager to do so. Reports that President Barack Obama and Erdogan have increased their dialogue suggest that the US also understands the benefits of providing Turkey with the leadership tools it needs to exert influence throughout the region in a way that can advance shared Turkish and Israeli interests.
With reconciliation in the works, what could the renewed ties look like? First, Turkey’s relations with Israel will strengthen its role as a regional mediator, particularly between the Palestinian factions. It is telling that Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently visited Turkey, receiving Ankara’s aid to reach a unity government. Even more so was Ayalon’s moderated rhetoric regarding Turkey’s outreach to Hamas, telling reporters that “We have no right to tell [Turkey] not to make contact with different [Palestinian] factions,” and that if Turkey is successful in moderating Hamas, “we would kiss the hands of every Turk.” In fact, Turkey’s role as a stable, influential voice in the Muslim world places it in a prime position to engage Hamas, and to reemerge as an influential conflict mediator.
Second, Turkey and Israel have a choice: They can reach a formula under which Israel expresses “deep regret” for the flotilla episode and offers to compensate the bereaved families, or the sides can agree on a qualified Israeli apology for the “inadvertent” death of nine Turks without placing the blame directly on Israel.
Finally, to complete the thaw of the icy relations, Turkish President Abdullah Gul – perhaps as a response to Netanyahu’s letter of congratulation – could extend an invitation to President Shimon Peres to visit Ankara. Such a visit would bring the unfortunate episode full circle – from the post Gazawar public argument between Erdogan and Peres at the conference in Davos, to a meeting in Ankara through which the two men could renew the historic ties between their nations.
The tensions between Israel and Turkey could be imminently washed away by a kind of perfect storm that emphasizes their shared interests regarding developments in the region.
While the nationalist pride of both peoples has been considerably damaged by the tension of the past year and a half, both countries have strong leaders who are now positioned to galvanize support for renewed relations.
As the Arab world takes to the streets in search of democracy, the two established democratic nations of the region now have an opportunity to work together to serve as pillars of stability, and to return to the work of advancing security and peace in a region gripped by chaos.

The writer is adjunct professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.