Turkish-Israeli Relations: Deadlock Continues…

13 March 2015
Israel will hold elections on 17 March and Turkey on 7 June 2015. So this may be a good time to look at the relationship.

Turkey and Israel enjoyed good relations for decades. For a long time, this was a negative element in the myriad of complexities which have historically characterized Arab countries’ ambivalent attitude towards Turkey. Gradually, however, they saw that Turkish-Israeli cooperation was not directed against their interests. Nevertheless, it gave them an excuse to criticize Turkey whenever the need arose.

With Justice and Development Party (JDP/AKP) in power in Turkey in 2002, an element of uncertainty was introduced into this relationship. Israel was concerned about JDP’s Islamic roots and the importance it attached to the Palestinian question. Ankara was not pleased with reports of Israel’s support to Iraqi Kurds following the US invasion. However, the relationship continued without a major disturbance until the “one minute” incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 30 January 2009 where Prime Minister Erdogan, in the presence of President Shimon Peres, denounced Israel for its attitude towards the Palestinians. This marked the beginning of the downturn.

Davos incident was followed by the “Mavi Marmara” tragedy. A Turkish NGO organized a flotilla to take humanitarian assistance to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli maritime blockade. Israel warned them that it would not allow this, but the organizers were determined. The Turkish Government chose to let the initiative run its course. Finally Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) boarded the flagship of the flotilla, “Mavi Marmara” and killed nine Turks. There was uproar in Turkey. Diplomatic representation was brought to the lowest level.

The issue was taken up by the UN at two different levels.

The UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva endorsed a report qualifying the Gaza blockade as well as IDF’s assault on “Mavi Marmara” as unlawful. The assault, according to the report, violated international law including international humanitarian law and the losses had to be compensated. But the report also mentioned that the flotilla had a political motive beyond the declared purpose of delivering humanitarian assistance. Israel refused to cooperate with the Council.

The work of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry” (also referred to as the Palmer Commission since it was led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer) yielded a somewhat different result. (In the absence of agreement between the Turkish and Israeli representatives on the Panel, its report was written by the Chairman and the two other members in accordance with the Panel’s terms of reference.

The report of the Panel said that the Gaza blockade was lawful. It found the flotilla’s action irresponsible but qualified Israeli reaction as extreme. It called for reconciliation between the two countries and advised Israel to make an appropriate statement of regret and pay compensation to the families of the victims and the injured.

Thus, there were two reports. The first seemed to please Turkey and the second Israel.
Turkey then made it clear that any improvement in relations with Israel depended upon:
• A formal apology,
• Compensation for the victims, and
• The lifting of the Gaza blockade.

On 20 March 2013 President Obama visited Israel. While there, he made a phone call to PM Erdogan and the call enabled PM Netanyahu to talk to his Turkish counterpart. It is understood that during the conversation Mr. Netanyahu offered an “apology” which Mr. Erdogan accepted.

The “apology” started a debate in Turkey. Was the apology genuine? What did PM Netanyahu exactly say? Was a telephone call formal enough for a diplomatic apology? What about the lifting of the Gaza blockade? Where would the relations go from here. Some called the “apology” a diplomatic success for Turkey. Others disagreed. They held the view that the “apology” did not meet the criteria previously set. One may say that Israel wished end the stalemate in relations in view of its growing isolation in the region. Turkey, on the other hand, would have liked a lot more, in particular the lifting of the Gaza blockade, but could not rebuff President Obama’s initiative.

It now seems that negotiations on the compensation to be paid by Israel to the victims and their families have stalled. The Israeli operations against Gaza in July 2014 have further undermined the possibility of even limited political rapprochement between the two countries.

The current climate has resulted in a dramatic drop in the numbers of Israeli tourists coming to Turkey. Bilateral trade volume appears to be unaffected.
My summing up of the “Mavi Marmara” tragedy is the following: The Turkish Government should not have allowed the flotilla to set sail and the Israeli Government should not have reacted with such violence and disproportionate use of force. In other words, two wrongs do not make a right.

The major obstacle to any improvement in relations remains the overarching question of chemistry. Israel will continue to look at the JDP with suspicion because of its ideology, support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It will remain on alert for new crises. Turkey would probably wish to avoid new crises but otherwise substantiate Israel’s assumptions. In the past, US interventions could sometimes make a difference. This is no longer the case.

The refusal by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs in February to attend a session of the Munich Security Conference because of the presence of Israeli participants was the latest indication of the current atmosphere.

Whatever the numbers, the winner of Turkish elections in all likelihood will again be the JDP. If the people of Israel choose to continue with PM Netanyahu, there would be no improvement whatsoever in relations. With a different government some steps towards de-escalation can be taken. Would this lead to genuine reconciliation? No, not for a long time…
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