Looking back on op-eds written prior to, and during, the paradigm shattering event which was the Gaza Flotilla, what stands out most is the sense of shock on all sides: shock by Israelis that Turkey didn’t understand its position, shock by Turks that Israel boarded the Mavi Marmara by force, and shock by the world that their strong friendship dissipated within a matter of days. Even for those who recognized that the Gaza Flotilla was a natural progression from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “one minute” episode in Davos, the incident proved that no alliance, no partnership, no friendship is ever guaranteed.
Two years on from the Gaza Flotilla, what is the current condition of the relationship between Israel and Turkey, and what is in store for the future?
Negative signs abound. In the past month alone, Turkey publicly refused Israel entry to NATO’s recent summit in Chicago, claimed it captured an Israeli bird rigged with advanced intelligence-gathering technology, accused Israel of flying planes into TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) airspace, and accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of planning to create a “20,000-strong military presence” on the island of Cyprus. These outrageous spins – almost exclusively refuted by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – are dramatic displays of frustration, as Turkey continues to pressure Israel for a Gaza Flotilla apology.
This week’s indictment of Israel’s highest ranking military figures, including former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, highlights the single-minded purpose among many of Turkey’s elite. Even a casual observer would note that this hasn’t been the best of times for the two former allies.
Don’t allow these headlines to completely discourage, though: Turkish media have a long tradition of fueling conspiracy theories, especially those with an agenda to further demonize perceived regional threats. Israel is no different from myriad other “untrustworthy” actors, including Syria and the PKK, which are suspected of receiving air intelligence from the Jewish State. And while Erdoğan and the ruling AKP certainly used inflammatory rhetoric toward Israel in order to curry votes in a country with a strong Muslim identity and a traditional voter base, a distinction must always be made between flashy headlines and realpolitik.
Ironically, it is the uncertainty of the Arab Spring, and specifically the Syrian uprising, that is drawing Israel and Turkey back together.
Both countries share security concerns that a post-Assad Syria would increase regional instability, and that chemical weapons could potentially fall into the hands of the PKK or Hamas. Netanyahu recently drew parallels between “Syrian atrocities” and Iran, while Erdoğan, who has taken in at least 25,000 Syrian refugees in Southeastern Turkey over the past year, has repeatedly called on Assad to relinquish power, saying, “Fighting your own people is not bravery but fear.” Erdoğan is one of the few leaders advocating for the intervention of an international coalition.
Soner Çağaptay, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, argues that Erdoğan’s position is driven out of a “fear of two Kurdistans,” but the economic impact of Syria’s unrest has been equally troubling for Turkey. After Turkish-Syrian trade volume saw an increase of 22% between 2005 and 2010 (according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs), with similar spikes in tourism and foreign investment, the disagreement between Erdoğan and Assad resulted in the suspension of free-trade agreements and the freezing of accounts worth billions. With no end in sight, it is Israel, not Turkey’s European or Arab neighbors, which has been willing to ease Ankara’s current financial strain.
But despite foreign trade and strategic partnership, the Gaza Flotilla must be addressed before Israel and Turkey can achieve true reconciliation. Unlike a year ago, when Netanyahu accepted a document that would formally apologize and offer compensation to the families of those who died aboard the Mavi Marmara, only to be stymied by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s threat to leave the coalition, the Israeli premier now possesses the political support to make difficult decisions without fear of immediate repercussions. Resolving the crisis with Turkey would showcase Netanyahu’s ability to pragmatically lead the country while taking another critical step toward isolating Iran.
Turkey must also take significant steps to meet Israel halfway. As one of the world’s (read: the Muslim world’s) most public figures, Erdoğan’s relentless crusade only reaffirmed the negative stereotypes of Israel that so desperately need to be reversed. Specifically, Erdoğan needs to curtail his near-four-year critique, put an end to the preposterous indictment of Israel’s military, and prevent the İHH from transforming the Mavi Marmara into a museum. These acts should be enough to begin shifting the public-relations tide among Israelis.
Many speak of Israeli “honor” when rejecting the option of an apology to Turkey, yet fail to acknowledge that the Israeli leadership has in the past offered much more for far less. Turkey is an invaluable regional asset, and with few guarantees in the Middle East, rapprochement is no longer a matter of why or how; rather a question of when.
Until that day, continued efforts must be made to strengthen top-down and bottom-up approaches in Israeli-Turkish relations. If Turkey is to become Israel’s “new-old best friend,” efforts must be made to engage both publics in dialogue. Investment in joint educational projects and cultural programs can redefine the relationship in ways that one-directional tourism and business cannot. Only then will the future of Israel’s relationships rely on the voice of the people rather than the vanities of our politicians.