Turkey and Israel: Now is the time to reconcile

The countries have maintained strong trade in wake of Gaza Flotilla incident.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
I strongly believe that the time is right for Turkey and Israel to mend their critically important bilateral relationship which has suffered a precipitous decline since 2010.
A number of factors suggest that restoring the relationship would benefit both countries’ national strategic interests, including:  turmoil in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring, a perilous crisis unfolding in Syria, concerns around the Iranian nuclear program, the recent expansion of the Netanyahu government and that fact that trade between the countries remains unaffected by these developments. The question is, will Israel and Turkey remove obstacles hindering the rapprochement that is crucial to regional stability and their national security concerns?
Coupled with other significant developments, perhaps the most alarming issue is the turmoil in Syria, in which Turkey has taken a strong and principled stand against the continuing carnage inflicted by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that Assad and his cohorts must step down in order to end the crisis. Turkey shares a border with Syria that is more than 800 kilometer long and continues to provide humanitarian aid in the country, shelter refugees and host the Syrian National Council, the main opposition to the Assad regime. Israel, for its part, has prevented potentially greater conflagration by carefully monitoring the situation and taking no provocative action. This has provided Turkey, empowered by the Arab League, the space it needed to serve as the main power broker opposing Assad.
The general regional uproar resulting from the Arab Spring has dramatically altered the status quo in the Middle East. Bilateral relations between Israel and Egypt – the pillar of regional stability since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979 – have soured. Meanwhile, Turkey’s stature in the region has grown immensely, due in part to the popularity of Erdogan and his positions on Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turkey’s stance on Syria, in particular, has mitigated the impression that Turkey panders to Islamists and demonstrated its willingness to take a more balanced approach, which alleviated some of Israel’s earlier concerns.
Turkey has emerged as an attractive interlocutor and model for the Arab world, while Israel has become more isolated. With regional instability expected to continue, both countries must seek a renewed strategic partnership.
Israel’s hawkish stance against Iran’s nuclear program has dramatically increased regional tension. World powers continue to work toward a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but until one is reached, Turkey, who is equally concerned with the nuclear program, can play an important role in diffusing tensions. Despite growing tension between Ankara and Tehran over the fate of the Assad government, the countries retain an amicable relationship and Turkey could pressure Tehran to show more flexibility in negotiations with the P5+1 in Baghdad, which resumed Wednesday.
Turkey’s adamant resistance to implementing sanctions on Iran runs contrary to Israel’s hard-line stance. But given Turkey’s certain wish to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Turkey and Israel have a common interest in constructive dialogue that could reduce the regional friction regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
In spite of serious conflicts between Turkey and Israel, rapprochement between the countries remains a viable possibility. Turkey has taken, for good reason, a very strong position against the Israeli settlement program, especially in light of the government’s recent decision to retroactively legalize three West Bank outposts. Turkey continues to criticize Israeli policies in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. The country has blocked Israel’s participation in the upcoming NATO Summit in Chicago on May 20 and the Mediterranean Dialogue Group. Both moves are linked to Israel’s refusal to offer a public apology for the Gaza Flotilla incident, during which eight Turkish citizens (and one Turkish-American) were killed by Israeli commandos.   
While Israel, on the other hand, has avoided provoking Turkey in recent months, there is lingering resentment against the Erdogan government for lashing out against Israel whenever the opportunity exists. Israel has made its share of mistakes, but it too seeks closure on the sad Marmara episode in order to resume its alliance with an increasingly influential country that is a close ally of the US, a powerful member of NATO and a neighbor of Israel’s three most sinister enemies: Syria, Lebanon and Iran. There is a growing sense that both sides want to preserve the prospect of restoring the relationship that existed before the diplomatic breakdown. The United States is aware of how stability in the region depends on the cooperation of its two most powerful nations and has urged both sides to move toward reconciliation.
Trade relations Turkey and Israel reached new heights in 2011-2012, despite historic lows in diplomatic relations, military exchanges and tourism between the countries. This phenomenon might encourage the countries to mend their differences. In addition, there is a tremendous level of technical collaboration, specifically in the biochemical field. Turkish businessmen still see Israel as a viable venue for trade and wish to learn from Israeli expertise.
The other significant development is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent decision to expand his coalition government. With 94 out of 120 Knesset members in his wing, he has an unprecedented grip on power. The move offers Netanyahu a great deal of political confidence to face challenges by smaller parties on issues where there is disagreement. Of particular significance is the upcoming two- year anniversary of the Gaza Flotilla Raid on May 31. Nearly a year ago, both sides succeeded in reaching an agreement in which Israel would apologize for the incident, compensate the victims, and allow Turkey to send food stuff and materials for civilian consumption to Gaza.
But there was strong dissent within the cabinet over Israel’s possible acquiescence and apology. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s threat to withdraw from the coalition was enough for Netanyahu to back down from signing the agreement. Now that Netanyahu commands an overwhelming majority in the Knesset, he can revive the agreement and without fear of Lieberman’s departure, offer the apology that Ankara has demanded all along. Turkey has said time and again that once such an apology is made, Ankara will resume full diplomatic relations, including the exchanging of ambassadors. There is no better time to do so than right now.
Instead of recalling the tragedy that took place in international waters on its second anniversary, Israel should reconsider its position by meeting Turkey’s demands on the Marmara affair, which could do more than just repair the rift between two former allies. Israel will dramatically benefit by ending its isolation from the Muslim world, and Turkey will likewise gain through its newfound assertiveness as a regional power.
The death of any one person at any time, in any place and under any circumstance, is unfortunate. Why not express an apology for lives that were lost and move on? This would not be seen as a sign of weakness but one of strength of conviction.  It would not be a victory for Turkey but a victory for the human spirit that transcends the hour and brings nations together. The time is now.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.