Turkey is in the news, and not just because of its proximity to and policies on Syria. In the past months the country has seen two major breakthroughs: an apology from Israel over the 2010 Gaza blockade incident and promising movement forward on a peace agreement with the PKK. While both events are good news, many experts and writers are warning against too much optimism with regards to both situations. In this post, the consequences of the apology will be addressed. A post later in the week will break down the current progress on the PKK in similar fashion.
In May 2010, a Turkish ship called the Mavi Marmara attempted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The ship was boarded by Israeli Naval Forces, and the ensuing confrontation left 9 Turkish citizens (including one Turkish-American) dead.
Israeli-Turkish relations–strong in the ’90s–had waned before the incident. Until May 2010, the strongest blow to the Israeli-Turkish relationship came during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, which left between 1,100 and 1,400 Gazans (half civilians) and 13 Israelis (10 soldiers) dead. Turkey decried the loss of life and what has been deemed disproportionate use of force. However, the Mavi Marmara incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Israeli-Turkish relations reached a new low, with the Israeli and Turkish ambassadors being dismissed and diplomatic relations continuing only at lower levels.
Nearly hree years after the incident, Turkey has finally received a hard-won apology from Israel, thanks to some negotiation by President Obama during his March trip to Israel. The apology includes a promise to compensate the families of the victims of the raid (though the amount has not been decided), and Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to take some measures to ease Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
However, while the apology is certainly good news, Israeli-Turkish relations are unlikely to warm to pre-Mavi Marmara (or pre-Operation Cast Lead) levels. The Economist cites Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “sharp tongue” (he has in the past accused the Israeli government of being guilty of crimes against humanity) as a persistent danger to Israeli-Turkish ties. In addition, disagreement over regional issues–such as Israel’s continued policies against Palestinians and Turkey’s lack of urgency in regards to the Iranian nuclear issue–will keep both countries at a considerable distance from each other. In the New York Times, Soli Ozel and Charles Kupchan write that Turkish and Israeli politics as a whole have been moving “in opposite directions” for at least a decade, beginning with the election of a more-conservative, religiously-oriented party–the AKP–to Turkish government in 2002. Of the AKP, the authors write, “[c]onfrontation with Israel is part of its popular appeal.” And whatever hopes Ambassador Özdem Sanberk has for the renewed ties, he makes it clear in an interview with The Journal of Turkish Weekly that the Israeli-Turkish relationship should not be viewed as having suddenly transformed into “a rose garden.”
However, there are obvious benefits to the strengthened ties afforded by the apology. Israeli tourists, who have long seen Turkey as a favored destination, will flock back to the country in higher numbers. There are talks of Israel and Turkey developing a relationship based on gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, and the discussion has even touched upon the possibility of Israel building a pipeline leading to Turkey, allowing the former to capitalize on European markets. Finally, with relations renewed, Turkey and Israel can finally get back to direct negotiations on the Middle East’s most pressing issues–Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian case. Regardless of divergences in policy, merely being able to discuss these issues out in the open (instead of through back channels) could lead to progress.
In the end, if the two countries do want to make the best out of their renewed ties, Sanberk, Ozel, and Kupchan have some advice. According to Sanberk, ” Turkey should appoint its ambassador to Israel — and Israel to Turkey — as soon as possible, without much fuss. And they should not be withdrawn again hastily when there is a new divergence between them.” According to Ozel and Kupchan, the best possible Israeli-Turkish relationship will be built off of three pillars: cooperation on Syria, increased economic linkages, and the launch of “a regional forum to address urgent issues of common concern, such as the violence in Syria, its implications for Lebanon and Iraq, and Iran’s nuclear program.”
For the United States–to whom Turkey and Israel owe their renewed ties–the benefits are clear. Turkey and Israel are the US’s longest and strongest allies in the region, and having them back on the same side of the negotiating table–or at least a little closer than was previously the case–is invaluable for a country whose interests in the region are deep and complex and whose motives are often questioned by the other players.