Turkey-Israel relations: Where do we stand?

Results of upcoming referendum for ‘revolutionary constitutional changes’ proposed by Erdogan’s AKP gov't will determine country's path toward the Jewish state.

Erdogan 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Erdogan 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Lately, it seems Turkey is showing a more conciliatory stance vis-àvis Israel. A senior Turkish official told Yediot Aharonot recently that the two countries must now “avoid escalation,” quiet down “the verbal incitement” and once the crisis ends the Israeli prime minister would be “welcome in Ankara.”
To salvage the relations Turkey is “only” asking Israel “to issue some sort of an apology and compensate the victims’ families.”
Actually, the contradictory statements by Turkish leaders, some escalating the situation, others calming tensions, are the result of two conflicting constraints: the attempt by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to use the May 31 flotilla crisis to strengthen the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party before the critical September 12 referendum and the growing pressure by the US to keep Turkey as an important ally.
The attempts to mend fences with Israel began at the end of June, when Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer secretly met Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels, apparently due to pressure from the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama reportedly warned Erdogan that actions Turkey has taken in its relations with Israel and its vote against sanctions on Iran “have caused worry in Congress” concerning its standing as an ally. He allegedly called on Ankara to cool its rhetoric about the flotilla raid.
Also, for the first time in the USTurkey relationship, the House Foreign Affairs Committee conducted a special hearing on whether Turkey’s axis is indeed shifting, and Republican congressmen blocked the appointment of Francis Ricciardone as ambassador to Turkey, because he is seen as “too soft to deal with the Turkish government.”
As a consequence, Turkish policymakers are planning to intensify contacts with Congress, after a series of talks in Washington between a high-level Turkish delegation and senior administration officials.
The formation of an international commission under the auspices of the UN secretary-general to look into the events surrounding the flotilla incident was considered a victory for Turkish diplomacy and its results crucial for relations with Israel.
But the US approach to the international commission focused on reconciling Israel and Turkey and proposing “recommendations as to how to avoid such incidents in the future,” a statement that angered Ankara.
ISRAEL DECIDED on an independent public commission with international observers to examine the maritime incident. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his testimony before the commission declared that the tension with Turkey was Ankara’s choice and left the door open for recovery.His surprising decision to cooperate with the UN commission also reflected an interest in maintaining good ties with Turkey.
Turkey for its part decided on a national commission under the coordination of the Prime Minister’s Office, with the participation of bureaucrats from the Foreign, Justice, Transportation and Interior ministries for investigating “the treatment to which persons in the convoy had been exposed.”
No word about its responsibilities in the incident.
Moreover, Turkish prosecutors launched an investigation against top Israeli leaders, which could result in pressing charges of murder and assault on Turkish citizens on the high seas and piracy.
Other negative Turkish moves included a meeting in mid-July between Davutoglu and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to discuss efforts to heal the rift between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas claimed the talks also covered Turkish efforts “to break the Israeli embargo” on Gaza.
Israel’s envoy to Turkey has not been invited lately to the annual Iftar dinner hosted by AKP for representatives of the diplomatic corps, an unprecedented hostile diplomatic act.
The Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported that Turkish intelligence personnel and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have recently signed an agreement to assist Hizbullah by transferring weapons from Iran to Syria and Lebanon through Turkey.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the report.
The Turks were already infuriated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s claim that the new head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, was a “friend of Iran” and that military information provided to Turkey might be handed over to the Iranians.
The Turkish opposition accused Erdogan of seeking a confrontation with Israel to advance his internal nationalist credentials before the September referendum and planning to advance the scheduled elections of July 2011.
According to the Turkish daily Hürriyet, the “Hamas-friendly” AKP government “cannot afford to give any impression to the public that it accepted anything short of an international inquiry that will ultimately find Israel guilty” and unless a settlement is reached which enables both sides to save face “matters will continue to get worse.”
On September 12, Turkish voters will go to the polls to approve or reject “revolutionary constitutional changes” proposed by the AKP government, which are intended to consolidate its influence, particularly in the judiciary.
If the AKP wins the referendum and thus continues to tighten its grip on the media, military andjudiciary, it will persevere on the path of Islamization and the shunning of Israel.
A sign in this direction is Turkey’s reaction to the latest terrorist attacks in Israel intended to derail the peace negotiations in Washington.
Turkey “welcomed the resumption of direct talks between Israel and Palestine” and stated that “it was important to avoid unilateral acts which would negatively affect the process,” but said nothing about the Hamas responsibility for the “heroic” murder of four innocent civilians last week.
The writer is senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counterterrorism and the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.