A new Israel-Turkey relationship

Despite a historical affinity between Israelis, Turks, strong interaction between people, NGOs, think-tanks was never established, that’s exactly what we need.

blue mosque istanbul 311 (photo credit: Elana Kirsh)
blue mosque istanbul 311
(photo credit: Elana Kirsh)
A year has passed since Israel’s deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara. The raid, which left eight Turkish activists and one Turkish- American activist dead and over 30 wounded, only exacerbated the already strained Turkey- Israel relationship, and the bilateral relations have since been waiting to be salvaged.
The culprit for the deterioration has been the Palestinian question, and the relations have followed the ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, peace processes have brought the two countries closer. After the Oslo Accords, for example, diplomatic relations were upgraded to ambassadorial level. Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 likewise enabled the rapprochement between the two countries, and to this end Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Israel to show Turkey’s appreciation of its step toward peace. Most recently, Israeli-Syrian indirect talks with Turkey’s sponsorship made the two countries partners for peace, and state-to-state-level contact reached high levels.
The Mavi Marmara incident added a second dimension to the bilateral relations: Israel’s position on the deadly attack. From day one after the incident, Turkey’s conditions for normalization have been pretty clear, and at the center of them were, and still are, an official apology and compensation to the families of the victims. Meanwhile, Israel has avoided any apologetic act, which would amount to acceptance of culpability. This unfortunately brings the relations to a complete deadlock.
Except for Israel’s easing of the Gaza siege by allowing more products in than it did before the flotilla, and reluctant agreement to collaborate with the Palmer commission [the UN Commission of inquiry appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer] – which are too little, too late – there has been no improvement so far that would bring a new momentum to the relations. Turkey’s help during the Carmel fire last year and the ensuing meetings between Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and Israel’s representative to the UN probe of the flotilla affair, Yosef Ciechanover, could not produce any positive results, either.
WE ARE currently at a point where the Track I diplomacy is in a stalemate, and far from addressing the Turkish-Israeli relations in general and the tragedy of the Mavi Marmara incident in particular. Therefore, it must be addressed in a new way via Track II diplomacy, because it seems that normalization of state-level relations will not predate normalization of relations between the two peoples. Put the international legal aspect aside, and the human tragedy experienced aboard the Mavi Marmara can be recognized by the people of Israel and Turkey. This will eventually introduce the missing piece in the bilateral relations: the civilian aspect.
This aspect has traditionally been neglected, and military relations have shaped the interaction between the two countries. Despite a historical affinity between Israelis and Turks, a strong interaction between people, NGOs, and think-tanks was never really established. The current deadlock in relations, therefore, presents an opportunity for the pro-peace camp in Israeli and Turkish civil society to work together to push the policy makers toward more compromising policies.
That said, it should be underlined that there is little on which Turkey could compromise regarding the Mavi Marmara; it is mostly Israel who should take bolder steps and not make the same mistake with the second flotilla. The outcome is critical not only for Turkish-Israeli relations, but also for the new Middle East that is being built by the Arab Spring. In a region where Israel’s isolation is increasing, new Turkish-Israeli relations could only bolster the latter’s security.
Considering Israel’s cold peace with Egypt and Jordan, which has never created a meaningful dialogue between Israelis, and Egyptians and Jordanians, a reverse, bottom-to-top approach should be employed in relations with Turkey.
The prospects for bilateral ties have been gloomy, and rightly so. But increasing people-to-people contact and an advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian track would prepare the grounds for new Turkish-Israeli relations in the new Middle East.
The writer is a fellow at Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) in Ankara.