Above the Fray: For Turkey and Israel, the time is now

In the context of regional unrest, the current moment could be exploited to begin to lay the foundation for improved relations.

Turkish workers in Tel Aviv protesting tensions 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Turkish workers in Tel Aviv protesting tensions 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Privately and quietly, in discussions among officials and analysts in both Israel and Turkey, recognition of the need to resume a positive working relationship is emerging.
As the governments independently evaluate the turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East, they are finding only two countries that have a combination of functioning – albeit imperfect – democracies, stable governance, substantial security apparatuses and thriving economies. But that is not all they share.
Both are handicapped by their misguided political rhetoric and posturing when it comes to their bilateral relationship.
In the fallout over the flotilla incident last May, Turkish-Israeli relations, which were already declining, hit rock bottom, and have since failed to significantly regain their footing. However, the many shared challenges that both nations face in the region today could serve to bridge the gaps that have kept their reconciliation at bay and reshape relations.
Rather than serve to investigate the flotilla incident, the findings of the reports issued by the Turkel Commission, and the subsequent Turkish report, only reinforced each side’s ensconced positions. The conclusions were as clearly predictable as they were contradictory: The Israeli commission stated that “by clearly resisting capture, the Mavi Marmara had become a military objective” and that “the passengers were to blame for the violence.”
The Turkish report stated that IDF soldiers used “excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate force.”
The publication of the conflicting conclusions effectively overrode the goodwill that had begun to generate in both countries following Turkey’s assistance to Israel in battling the Mount Carmel forest fire in early December. Therefore, the status quo has stood firm. Turkey continues to demand an apology and compensation for the families of the nine Turkish citizens killed aboard the Mavi Marmara. Israel continues to refuse to do so, while openly worrying about Turkey’s pledge to deepen its ties with Iran and Syria.
BUT COULD this be changing? Last month, the International Strategic Research Organization, an organization whose directors are considered to be close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held a panel on the state of Turkey-Israel relations with Israeli and Turkish panelists. Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is remembered for his treatment of then- Turkish ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, began to change his tone. He told the European Policy Center in Brussels that Israel and Turkey should stop blaming one another and instead work to mend relations.
Indeed, in Jerusalem and Ankara, more and more officials are beginning to realize that, in a region that is likely to be torn by prolonged uncertainty and conflict, it is in the interests of both nations to reach accommodation.
The two sides are not only beginning to recognize their diplomatic follies.
Other key ingredients falling into place suggest now is the time to improve relations.
Business ties had been considered unaffected by the worsening political relations. But more and more businesses are finding it cumbersome to launch new ventures in the context of the ongoing political tension. With economic uncertainty gripping neighboring countries, a renewed push for strengthened economic ties would be prudent.
Meanwhile, Turkey will face a nationwide election on June 12. But with the AKP comfortably ahead in the polls (50 percent) in comparison to the opposition CHP (23%), the expectation that criticism of Israel may be used as a political tool during the campaign season has dampened. That Erdogan has largely been silent in his public chastising of Israel in recent weeks is particularly telling. So too is the growing realization in Turkey of the need to maintain its foreign policy options come the day after the election.
Turkish bureaucrats with long-standing ties with Israeli counterparts have a particular understanding that for Turkey to extend its influence in the reshaping of the Middle East and beyond, it must improve its ties with Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the makeup of Israel’s government is more conducive to an accommodation.
The departure of Uzi Arad, a fierce critic of Ankara, as national security adviser removes a measure of criticism from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ears. At the same time, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, another fierce opponent of reconciling with Turkey, has become increasingly preoccupied (and weakened) by his pending indictment on corruption charges. In addition, there is an urgent need for Israel to improve its international standing, and its relations with the US.
FINALLY, PERHAPS the most important ingredient to improving relations is also in place: the passage of time. The raw emotions that accompanied the flotilla event have begun to subside, even if the nationalist fervor that was generated has not. In the context of the regional unrest, and the growing sense on both sides that each must acknowledge the need to look forward, the current moment could be exploited to begin to lay the foundation for improved relations – but how? A balance must be achieved between both nations’ desire to save face. Neither side will make a major concession that gives the appearance it has caved in to the others’ demands. Turkey would certainly oppose doing so in the context of an election season; Israel because it wants to avoid appearing weak by making hasty concessions amidst the regional turmoil. That is why, next month, when the office of the UN secretary-general will publish its own version of the events aboard the Mavi Marmara, Israel and Turkey should focus on reaching a new understanding.
Reaching such an understanding will require ongoing back-channel dialogue to agree upon language addressing the flotilla episode in terms that recognize the conclusions provided by each side, and the need for appropriate compensation of the victims. Agreed language need not focus on explicit placement of wrongdoing so much as on the broad recognition of transgressions and the need to provide an alternative path forward.
In this respect, rather than use their respective reports on the flotilla incident to drive a deeper wedge between their positions, each side should acknowledge the perspective of the other as part of the path forward. Achieving progress in this regard will be especially important in advance of the publication of the UN report, to ensure that it serves as an endnote to this dark chapter.
IN THE wake of the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, many analysts have looked to Turkey as a potential model for Egypt, and the reshaping Arab Middle East at large. Of course, each nation has its own individual attributes, but it is true that Turkey, as a democracy balancing Islamic tradition with modernity and economic growth, does provide part of the illustration of what a new Middle East might look like. But even more than a model, Turkey should serve to provide important lessons to the peoples of the Middle East: For the reshaping Arab world, the lessons should be that the formation of democracy and its balance with Islam, is an ongoing, arduous process, but can ultimately lead to economic prosperity and renewed confidence for the peoples of the Middle East.
For Israel the lesson should be equally clear: In a region that may soon look more and more like Turkey, it is time to make peace with the original.
In extolling the virtues of relations between democracies in his book A Durable Peace, Binyamin Netanyahu wrote: “The whole idea of politics in democratic states is the nonviolent resolution of conflict – not harmonious agreement, not even tolerable disagreement, but the dynamic reconciliation of opposing views and conflicting interests.”
That is exactly the kind of understanding that is needed between Turkey and Israel. It is time for Netanyahu to act on his own advice.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.