Israel-Turkey relations and the silent revolution

A limited apology will not restore relations to their 1990s heyday, but there are compelling reasons for Israel to express a willingness to make such an apology.

Erdogan 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Erdogan 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The announcement by the top Turkish commanders of land forces, navy and air force regarding their early retirement represents the final stage of the military’s neutralization as a significant domestic player.
This process lies at the core of a silent revolution under way in Turkey since the Justice and Development Party’s ascent to power in late 2002, which eroded the status of the army, and cracked this and other aspects of Ataturk’s legacy. The process of neutralizing the intra-national political power of the army is also important in terms of foreign affairs and security, and in particular the country’s relations with Israel.
The dramatic changes in Turkey’s armed forces killed any hope of reviving Israeli-Turkish military cooperation. The indictments against dozens of officers mean in effect that the army will make no attempt to challenge the government’s Israel policy. Furthermore, following the success of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party in eroding the army’s status, the government will make a concerted effort to maintain this achievement.
Under the circumstances, the question arises whether there is any point to Israel apologizing for the Mavi Marmara takeover. Turkey has repeatedly stated that it will not forgo such an apology as a precondition for rebuilding relations, alongside compensation and an end to the Gaza blockade. The Turkish representative to the Palmer Commission, appointed by the UN secretary-general to investigate last year’s flotilla, has tried to downplay the extent of the disagreement, comparing the incident to an accidental spilling of a cup of coffee, after which one must apologize and pay for the dry-cleaning bill. The analogy is inaccurate for many reasons, but that seems to be the extent of the apology Israel is currently capable of making – i.e., a limited one focusing on operational failures.
Notwithstanding that such an apology would not lead to significant changes in the security dimension of the countries’ relations, there are factors that explain Israel’s willingness. These factors will almost certainly affect the ties between the two nations in the near future.
THE FIRST factor is American pressure.
The relations between Israel and Turkey are not only bilateral, but for many years have also been part of a triangle, with the US constituting the third side. The Arab Spring has brought Turkey’s importance as a US regional ally into sharp focus, as America’s other allies in the Middle East have been significantly weakened and/or undergone changes rendering them less reliable.
In this context, the deterioration of Israel-Turkey relations, which the US viewed negatively even before the Arab Spring, is particularly problematic. The Americans are applying significant pressure on both countries to rebuild their relations.
Against the other difficult problems in the Middle East, the strained relationship between Israel and Turkey is, from the point of view of the US, a temporary mishap that must be repaired before it generates further negative results in its wake.
Another factor is the need for Israeli-Turkish relations in light of the changes in the Middle East, and the instability resulting from the ‘Arab Spring,’ particularly in Syria. Military cooperation at the level that existed in the 1990s should not be the objective; rather, the aim should be a very basic cooperation, which will be needed, for example, if the situation in Syria grows even more unstable.
Israel, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently said, cannot allow itself not to have relations with a key state in the region – i.e., Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Turkey. The changes in Egypt and the uncertainties regarding its future, the open confrontation with Iran, and the fact that there is virtually no contact with Saudi Arabia mandate a certain improvement in relations with Turkey.
A further consideration is the attempt to protect the soldiers who participated in the takeover of the Marmara from lawsuits. The concern that the Palmer Report, when published, will serve as a basis for lawsuits against IDF soldiers, and the attempt to gain Turkey’s commitment not to instigate such lawsuits are another component of Israel’s willingness to make a limited apology.
Whether this is its primary motive or whether this is also a means to prime Israeli public opinion to swallow an apology remains an open question. In any event, the Israeli judicial system is apparently persuaded that there will be no legal strings attached after an apology.
An additional factor concerns trade relations. Economic ties between Israel and Turkey have flourished despite the political tension, given that in many ways the two have complementary economies. The Justice and Development Party also places much emphasis on using foreign policy to promote the Turkish economy.
Nonetheless, should the tension between the countries heighten, more and more businesspeople on both sides are liable to fear bilateral cooperation.
At the same time, it is clear that every worsening of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, will erase some of the positive results that may result from an apology, whether Erdogan visits the Strip or not. Furthermore, the announced resignations of the army leaders and the general concerns of other officials would limit Israeli- Turkish dialogue to the level of functionaries in the Foreign Ministry.
IN CONCLUSION, the resignations of the Turkish army heads bespeak the end of a process that has taken some years – i.e., the weakening of the Turkish military as a political player.
From Israel’s perspective, this is an inconvenient situation because in the past, the Turkish military was the force that pushed for closer cooperation with Israel. Israeli policymakers should acknowledge that this situation is probably irreversible, and that the erosion of the army’s power has the support of the Turkish people.
There is also full agreement in Turkey that Israel must apologize for the events of the flotilla. It is still unclear whether Israeli willingness to issue a limited apology will satisfy the Turkish public. A limited apology will not restore relations to their 1990s heyday, but there are compelling reasons – connected mainly to strategic changes and the possible emergence of a new strategic balance in the region – for Israel to express a willingness to make such an apology.
Oded Eran is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies.

Gallia Lindenstrauss is a researcher at the institute.