After three-and-a-half years in the doldrums, Israeli-Turkish relations seem to be climbing the road to recovery, though that road appears no less bumpy than most other affairs in Turkey these days.
Israel’s relations with the strongest country in the Middle East had generally been good, and at times even intimate, until last decade. When Recep Erdogan’s religious government took office in 2003, it slowly began hammering at Turkish-Israeli relations, bringing them to full crisis in May 2010.
The good years began shortly after Israel’s birth, when Turkey defied the rest of the Muslim world and recognised the Jewish state. A decade later, Ankara and Jerusalem grew closer as Turkey joined David Ben-Gurion’s secret alliance of non-Arab pro-Western regional states, along with Iran and Ethiopia. Finally, during the 1990s, Israel and Turkey forged a strategic partnership – Israel became a major arms supplier for Turkey while Turkey conducted military exercises with Israel, opened its airspace for the Israel Air Force, and attracted annually hundreds of thousands of Israeli vacationers.
The rationale behind Turkey’s attitude was that, like Israel, it is a country with its feet in the east and its face looking west, one whose relations with the region’s Arab majority was troubled and likely to remain so, due to problematic historic memories.
And then along came Recep Erdogan.
Turkey’s outspoken Prime Minister of the past 12 years lacked his predecessors’ affinity to the Jewish state. In fact, the more he spoke about Israel the more it became apparent that he had been exposed over the years to virulent antisemitism, at one point insinuating that the Jews are liars, and at another suggesting that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood regime was brought down by a Jewish plot involving Israeli Minister Tzipi Livni and French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy.
More significantly, Erdogan publicly insulted President Shimon Peres, and libelled the Jewish state – storming out of a panel with Peres in Davos in 2009 shouting “when it comes to killing, you know how to kill.” In February 2013, he referred to Zionism as a “crime against humanity.”
Erdogan repeatedly attacked Israel and spoke of it condescendingly until, in the first half of 2010, he inspired and some believe masterminded, a flotilla that claimed to be bringing aid to Gaza. It was intercepted by the IDF, which in turn found its soldiers under attack – mobbed by Turkish passengers on one large vessel. In the ensuing clash nine Turks were killed. Turkey then recalled its Ambassador from Tel Aviv and expelled Israel’s from Ankara, thus downgrading relations to low-level diplomats, cancelled all previous military cooperation, and began openly supporting Hamas.
That was in 2010. This February, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Israel and Turkey were close to finalising a full restoration of their relations. Then Erdogan appeared to throw a spanner in the wheels, resuming his old demand that Israel promise, in writing, to lift what he described as “the siege on Gaza.”
While parts of the ruling class clearly remain hostile to Israel, it’s evident important elements of it want to mend fences with Israel. What caused this rethink? In one word – interests.
As seen from Ankara, the past three years’ upheaval in the Middle East gradually added up to a nightmare.
What initially seemed like a victory for Turkey’s version of democracy and Islamism has since given way to its Egyptian ally’s downfall and to its Syrian enemy’s resurgence. In Cairo, Erdogan bet heavily on the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood, responding harshly to its removal by a combination of popular unrest and military meddling in politics. In Syria, meanwhile, Erdogan turned on his former friend President Bashar Assad, and bet on the opposition forces when it seemed Assad’s days in power were numbered.
Worse, the Syrian civil war pits Turkey against neighbouring Iran, which Ankara had originally hoped to cultivate as an important element in a Turkish-led Middle Eastern economic zone. Instead, Iran and Turkey are now on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war. This reality pulled the plug on Turkey’s neo-Ottoman diplomacy which sought to nurture relations with the Arab world and Iran, and to marginalise Israel.
Since then Assad has defied forecasts about a quick downfall, and Erdogan became bogged down with 200,000 Syrian refugees in tent camps along the southeastern border, plus an estimated 200,000 elsewhere in Turkey. Faced with this, Erdogan’s critics are charging that his heavy-handed diplomacy has ruined relations with three important allies – Egypt, Syria and Israel – and gained Turkey nothing.
Meanwhile, Erdogan began losing altitude domestically as well.
Last summer, environmental protests in Istanbul following government plans to raze a park – one of the few in the city – and build on it a mosque and a mall, spread throughout the country, denting Erdogan’s image as a political paragon.
Then came a corruption scandal involving alleged bribes and favouritism involving well-connected contractors and senior ministers and their sons, including one of Erdogan’s. The resignations of three cabinet ministers, the subsequent dismissals of half the cabinet, and Erdogan’s reassignment of hundreds of police officers and firing of 70 senior ones – including ones who had led the investigation of the prime minister’s cronies – have led many to charge that Erdogan is leading Turkey toward dictatorship. Erdogan’s confrontation with the judiciary, which he accused of plotting against him, did little to undo this impression, as did a recent bill to tighten control over the judiciary and impose new government supervision on the internet.
To top it all, the economy, too, began to flag. The Lira has lost one-third of its dollar value since last spring due to a hot-money exodus fuelled by Turkey’s ballooning current-account deficit, which has already reached 7% of GDP. Responding to the crisis, the Bank of Turkey doubled interest rates in February, but not before Erdogan attempted to intimidate that agency, too, saying he was “always opposed to raising interest rates.”
This is the general setting in which the people surrounding Erdogan figured it was time to mend fences with the Jewish state. In a tumultuous Middle East where leaders, ruling classes, and entire countries can fall apart abruptly, and with Turkey itself facing increasingly restless classes of the population and embattled institutions, Ankara can ill afford to squander normal relations with the Jewish state which, by Middle Eastern standards, is stable, predictable, and reliable.
The contours of a prospective deal are generally known: Israel will pay reparations – roughly a combined US$20 million – for the families of the passengers killed during the 2010 skirmish; Turkey will pass legislation that will cancel all pending lawsuits against Israeli soldiers and officers; diplomatic relations will be restored to full ambassadors; Turkey will cease its obstruction of NATO exercises with the IDF; mutual visits from government delegations will resume; and Turkey will refrain from joining attacks on Israel in international forums.
Economic relations, it should be noted, were not significantly affected by the crisis.
The original Turkish demand, that Israel apologise for the incident, was already met last year, when US President Barack Obama, at the end of his visit to Israel, made Erdogan and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu talk to each other over the phone.
The only barrier appears to be Erdogan re-asserting his demands about ending the so-called “siege of Gaza”.
Israel says there is no siege on Gaza, as its inhabitants can leave via Egypt, and Israel allows the entry of almost all civilian goods to Gaza. What Israel does blockade is arms shipments, including through the sea, and this it will continue to do, as no foreign country can tell another how to conduct its security and foreign affairs.
Aides to Netanyahu quickly said Erdogan’s request was indeed out of the question. Paradoxically, it seems both Erdogan and Netanyahu may be waiting to see how next month’s local elections in Turkey turn out.
For the embattled Erdogan, the contest was supposed to be a cakewalk, but now he might emerge bruised. His powerbase, the lower classes, remains solid, and comprises about half the electorate, according to Dr. Alon Liel, a former Israeli envoy in Ankara and a leading expert on Turkey. Still, the Turkish Government’s decision to freeze, under dubious pretext, the assets of the main opposition candidate for mayor of Istanbul indicates Erdogan fears losing that political stronghold, which he had held himself prior to his rise to national stardom.
A setback in Istanbul, and also in the race for the mayoralty of Ankara, might accelerate the popular pressure Erdogan has been facing since last summer, and possibly damage his bid in the presidential race which is scheduled for next summer.
With the increasingly besieged Erdogan making unrealistic demands, Netanyahu has reason to wait for the Turkish premier to lose a bit more altitude before concluding a deal with him. Erdogan, for his part, has reason to wait a bit more, hoping his position will possibly improve following the local elections.
Then again, these dynamics likely impact only the timing of the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement’s completion. The deal itself looks inevitable, because with Egypt a rival, Iran a menace, and Syria an enemy, the Middle East that Turkey hoped to reinvent – a pan-Muslim axis solidly anchored in Ankara – has by now been forgotten even by the Turks themselves.