Over the past decade, relations between Israel and Turkey have been a story of strategic partners who have gradually parted ways since the Turkish Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) – led by its firebrand leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan – won a landslide victory in the country’s 2002 general elections.
Erdogan’s government started an ideological reorientation, shifting the foreign policy focus toward the Islamic world while overseeing unprecedented economic growth. But at the same time, he navigated Turkey along a diplomatic road involving increasing contention with Israel. This climaxed in the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla clash – where Israel naval commandos attempting to stop a Turkish-sponsored flotilla defying an Israeli naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza ended up killing nine Turkish citizens after being attacked by activists.
Following the incident, Turkey withdrew its Ambassador to Israel, and Erdogan has repeatedly stated that normal relations can only resume if Israel apologises for its actions, pays compensation to the victims’ families, and lifts the Gaza blockade.
During his visit to Israel in March, US President Barack Obama arranged a dramatic telephone call on March 22 between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Erdogan. Netanyahu spoke of Israel’s “regret for certain operational errors” in the commando assault on the Mavi Marmara. Compensation, he said, would be paid to each of the nine families of the victims killed on the flotilla. The two leaders ostensibly undertook to put their acrimonious three-year-old dispute behind them and normalise relations.
After the Apology
A month later, on April 22, Turkish and Israeli teams met for the first time in Ankara to negotiate the details of an earlier drafted deal.
The Israeli delegation is headed by Netanyahu’s National Security adviser General (ret.) Yaacov Amidror, and his special adviser on Turkish-Israel relations, Joseph Ciechanover.
Erdogan’s deputy Bulent Arinc, who heads the Turkish delegation to the talks, told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that his country “wants to settle all the issues in the first session of their talks,” and “to fully normalise and restore mutual ties to what they were before.”
However, the Israelis are suspicious that the Turks may devise additional demands or backtrack on their commitment to end the dispute. “We are realistic, hoping it’s possible to reach an agreement in the first session, since there are many issues on the table,” a senior Israeli official in the Prime Minister’s Office told AIR.
Faced with Turkey’s decade-long shift to the Islamic world, “it’s not possible in the short or immediate term to return to the level of intimacy we (Israel) had in the 1990s. But we do believe that it is possible to substantially improve the relationship, and that this is in the interests of both sides,” the official said.
Israel is prepared to pay US$100,000 in compensation to each of the families of the victims killed on the Mavi Marmara, but is not prepared to accept criminal or moral culpability for their deaths. The Turks claim millions of dollars in compensation – and have also launched a series of criminal prosecutions against the IDF officers and soldiers involved, charges Israel wants dropped.
The Turks insist that all restrictions be lifted on civilian goods entering the Gaza Strip through Israeli border checkpoints – including the naval blockade which Israel says prevents terrorist organisations from smuggling military equipment, rockets and missiles into Gaza to attack Israel.
Under understandings reached with Hamas via Egyptian mediators at the end of the November 2012 “Pillar of Defence” military operation, Israel has been progressively lifting restrictions on the passage of inspected civilian goods over the border crossings to Gaza. A government source said, “If the ceasefire were kept in force, Israel would continue to liberalise.” However, renewed missile fire in March halted further liberalisation measures, he noted, “Easing of restrictions is a function of the quiet. If there is no quiet then this (liberalisation) is irrelevant.”
The Turks also link an agreement on normalisation to resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a Turkish mediating role for the creation of an independent Palestinian State.
Playing down Erdogan’s reported plans to visit the Gaza Strip in late May, Arinc told Ma’ariv that the announcement was targeted to “publicly demonstrate to Turkey’s Islamists Ankara’s support for the Palestinians.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Government sources say Turkish claim to a key role in restarting Israel-Palestinian negotiations was and is likely to remain wishful thinking. “Israel welcomes any constructive input from anyone around the world,” said the senior source. “But to be fair, in the foreseeable future the American and Egyptian roles will remain crucial and no-one is going to challenge that leadership role.”
A return to normality?
Normalisation negotiations could take between two to three months before a final agreement is completed and signed, but they are expected to reap economic benefits if they succeed, a senior foreign ministry official told AIR.
With the thaw in relations, Israel expects trade and renewed tourism to take off. “Trade actually rose during the three-year political crisis, and with reciprocal tourism cooperation set to jump back to pre-Marmara figures, the economic relationship can go forward even further,” sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said. It is also hoped that slackened academic exchanges will again flourish. And with Turkish renovations of a new Turkish cultural centre in Jaffa set for completion shortly, it is hoped the centre can become a major venue for exchanges and discussion on aspects of mutual concern to both Israeli and Turkish civil society.
Underlying diplomatic tensions
While prospects for normalising people-to-people relations are promising, Israel and Turkey will continue to sharply disagree over their regional interests, making it difficult for the US to coordinate strategic policies on hot spots in the region, experts consulted by the AIR said.
Bar Ilan University Professor and Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) Efraim Inbar sees Israel and Turkey as strategic adversaries for the foreseeable future. He sees no signs of a Turkey experiencing a “turnaround in its hegemon, neo-Ottoman, anti-Western and anti-Israel policies.” Israel’s “mistaken apology” for operational errors in the Mavi Marmara affair strengthens Ankara’s ambitions and weakens Israel’s deterrence, says Inbar.
Writing in a BESA Perspectives policy paper in March, Inbar accused Erdogan of manipulating virulent antsemitic attacks on Israel to gain a leadership role in the Middle East and Islamic world. He chided the US for harbouring “naïve and illusory hopes” of attaining Turkish cooperation in a turbulent region.
Turkey does not represent moderate Islam, Inbar argues. It sides with Hamas and has helped to entrench its power in Gaza to win international support and recognition. It helps Iran to evade US sanctions, sides with radical Islamic Sunni elements in Syria and obstructs Israel’s efforts to develop its ties with NATO. Ankara aggressively regards itself as an energy bridge between the Middle East and Europe and “bullies” Cyprus into opposing Israel’s plans to export its newly-found gas riches via the island state.
Professor Barry Rubin, head of the Global Research in International Relations (GLORIA) Centre in Herzliya and former editor of the journal Turkish Studies, argues that easing tensions with Turkey is important for Israel because of the dramatic upheavals in the region. But he warns that it is vital to understand that the AKP government is successfully transforming Turkish society through the construction of Islamist institutions.
He cautions that normal relations do not guarantee peaceful cooperation and may instead drain any interaction of content (as is the case with Egypt). “Erdogan is popular and his party can be reelected to remain in power for many years to come. He (or his successor) will do all he can to publicly incite against Israel by exploiting diplomatic issues or creating new ones,” Rubin told AIR.
“The Turkish military has been gutted with pro-Islamist officers [replacing the veteran secularist ones] and is excluded from Turkey’s National Security Council, which now behaves with one voice as if Israel… is the country’s biggest enemy,” Rubin said.
Rubin also said that while there were some Turkish-Israel shared interests with regard to Syria, there are also serious differences.
The civil war in Syria has already fragmented the country and the fighting could drag on for years, Rubin says. Israel and Turkey agree that it must be contained and ended, but have no coordinated strategy with the US to achieve this.
Turkey actively supports the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power in a post-Assad Syria, he added.