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Israel-Turkey Need More Robust Public Diplomacy

Many observers of Israeli-Turkish relations positively point to the growing trade relations between the two countries despite frosty political ties. However, the 2009 Davos ‘One Minute’ incident, the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla crisis, Turkey’s support for Hamas and the dispute over the Eastern Mediterranean gas fields still cast a tall shadow over bilateral relations.

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about a fresh start between Israel and Turkey which can potentially mend the frosty ties. While reconciliation at the political level is certainly an important step, grassroots level engagement is equally important in helping build trust between communities. Unfortunately, there is a trust deficit in Israel due to Turkey’s unpredictable behavior and rampant anti-Semitism. On the Turkish side there are many misconceptions about Israel and Israelis that can only be shattered by increased engagement with the ‘unknown’. A long-term and lasting relationship between Israel and Turkey can be more realistically sustained through investment in people-to-people exchange programs. These grassroots programs will create opportunities for Israelis and Turks to get to know each other and collaborate on shared interests. Such programs can help close trust deficit between Israelis and Turks and in the long-term change minds about one another. Israel and Turkey should seize this optimistic yet cautious moment to create and support such programs.

The advancements in communication technologies have created an opportunity for more dialogue, engagement and civil society involvement. Compared to the past, the public has a broader agency role in diplomacy through the ability to engage with the civil society of another state. Such engagement positions the public as active participants in diplomatic practice. Even when official diplomacy fails to deliver, non-state actors can maintain people-to-people ties by encouraging conversations between societies. Opinion leaders, the private sector, universities, NGOs and other parts of civil society should work in coordination to enable grassroots engagement by planning workshops and events to encourage normalization. In this globalized world there are numerous common issues that people across ethnic, religious and national divides are concerned about. Climate change, gender equality, health care, entrepreneurship and education are just a few issues bringing together people. Youth leadership is a particularly important group to invest in, given the possibilities future generations can hold for relations between the two countries. However, such exchanges should not be limited to youth and should extend to different sectors, of which there are plenty of opportunities.

One area of collaboration can be educational exchanges through universities where top colleges in the two countries can put together workshops and collaborate on an academic level. Another area of collaboration can be in the science and technology industry in which Israel has made significant advances. Know-how exchange and training future leaders in high tech can be a fruitful area in strengthening ties. Entrepreneurship is tied to science and technology which can bring together groups of people who can exchange new ideas and learn from one another. A third area of exchange can take place within the health industry. While Israel is known for its cutting edge R & D in pharmaceuticals and healthcare, Turkey has established itself as a hub for international healthcare. Major Turkish and Israeli hospitals can join forces in creating a Mediterranean hub for international health tourism. Furthermore, pharmaceuticals like Israeli TEVA and Turkish Abdi İbrahim can start joint training or research programs. Agriculture is another area of possible collaboration in which Israel has gained expertise in by finding innovative solutions to its water problem. State organizations such as MASHAV that train specialists from other countries in sustainable farming can facilitate such programs in cooperation with their Turkish counterparts. The opportunities for exchange are too many to list, and could also include exchanges around global issues such as gender equality, healthcare and global warming where NGOs working in those areas can collaborate to discuss how these issues impact both Israelis and Turks. Lastly, programs can be established to facilitate cultural exchanges such as friendly matches between sports teams, musicians and collaborative workshops amongst artists. In addition, resources should be devoted to multi- track diplomacy where opinion leaders such as journalists, academics, and faith based communities come together to learn from one another.

Ultimately, Israel and Israelis are still relatively unknown to many Turks, and vice-versa. Increased tourism can help address this, and even during this COVID-19 pandemic, the digital space can be utilized to “visit” the other. While these initiatives will not be enough to mend the ties between Israel and Turkey, they will support the diplomatic process. Most importantly, people-to-people exchanges between Israelis and Turks can help curb the increasingly anti-Semitic discourse in Turkey which is a major obstacle for a genuine reconciliation.

About the Author
Senem B. Çevik, Ph.D, is a communication scholar specializing in public diplomacy. She taught international studies courses at UC, Irvine and UCLA. Her research focuses on the intersection of identity, communication and psychology with an emphasis on Turkey and the Middle East. She is a member of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI), Turkey-Israel Civil Society Forum (TICSF) and American Jewish Committee (AJC) Abraham Society MJAC. Dr. Cevik is currently continuing her research at UCI CEM.
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