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Turkey and Israel — not the time for strategic blindness

For Ankara and Jerusalem, there are too many regional challenges to justify ongoing strategic blindness

Significant efforts have been taking place behind the scenes to try to mend Turkish-Israeli relations battered by the Marmara incident, during which the unfortunate and inadvertent death of eight Turkish citizens and an American-Turkish citizen occurred. One would think that in light of the civil war in Syria, and its potential regional repercussions presently and in a post-Assad era, the two countries could leave emotions and misplaced national pride aside, and put their strategic and national security interests first. Regrettably, this is not happening, when in fact reconciliation between the two former allies is imperative to prepare for the inevitable collapse of the Assad regime and the emergence of a new political order (or more likely chaos), which is bound to affect both countries indirectly and directly. There is no room for strategic blindness.

I maintain that Turkey and Israel should immediately restore full diplomatic relations, strategically collaborate, and exchange vital intelligence in anticipation of continuing regional instability and mayhem in Syria. Turkey’s demand for an Israeli apology for the Marmara incident, and Israel’s refusal, however principled the former may be, is incomparable with the high regional stakes for both Ankara and Jerusalem. Israel should offer a qualified apology along the lines that Israel apologizes for the “inadvertent” death of Turkish citizens, settle quickly on the amount of compensation to the bereaved families of the victims, and somewhat modify the blockade over Gaza to generally satisfy the Turkish demands (such as Israeli monitors surreptitiously inspecting Gaza-bound Turkish ships before departing from port), as long as Turkey shows flexibility as well and does so in a manner that would offer a way of saving face for both nations.

Ironically, while the diplomatic relations remain at a standstill, trade between the two countries has been growing exponentially. In fact, in 2010 the total exchange of goods and services amounted to $3.36 billion and in 2011 it grew by more than one billion to $4.4 billion. It is estimated that 2012 will top all previous years as Israeli and Turkish businessmen find trading with one other economically advantageous, but also because both governments encourage the expansion of commercial ties to maintain the growth of their gross national product (GNP). What this demonstrates is that while the two countries directly and mutually benefit economically, political principles are conveniently ignored, which reveals not only a lack of consistency but also a high level of hypocrisy. However, maintaining strong commercial relations does have political implications in that neither country is willing to further undermine their bilateral trade ties while also maintaining, and in fact strengthening, the basis on which to fully resume diplomatic relations.

Indeed, both countries are troubled with multiple problems in their neighborhood. Turkey’s appeal to the Arab street in the wake of the Arab Spring has produced little cheering and much suspicion. Turkey’s problems with the Kurds are exasperating, and relations with Armenia remain tense as the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide is approaching. Turkey’s close ties with Syria have been ripped apart, and its relations with Iran have reached a new low as Turkey supports the Syrian rebels while Iran fully backs the Assad regime. There is also growing tension with Russia over their conflicting interests in Syria and the building of a new air defense system in Turkey. Moreover, relations with Greece are cold at best because of the conflict over Cyprus, which remains unresolved.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008, with then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. has the times come for reconciliation? (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008, with then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. has the times come for reconciliation? (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Israel, on the other hand, has its own share of neighborly problems: Relations with the Palestinians are deteriorating, and may soon further worsen, as a result of the Palestinian Authority’s upcoming bid to become a non-voting member of the United Nations General Assembly. Israel is also concerned over the transition of power in Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood and the future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Moreover, Israel feels threatened by Iran’s nuclear program and is concerned over Hezbollah’s huge arsenal in Lebanon, which includes tens of thousands of rockets and short-range missiles. Finally, there is a growing chill between Israel and the European community as the latter is unhappy about the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has the potential to further destabilize the region.

To be sure, neither Turkey nor Israel can be sanguine regarding the rapidly deteriorating conditions throughout the Middle East. Israel’s growing isolation and the failure of Turkey’s foreign policy principle of “zero problems with neighbors” should awaken both nations to the bitter reality. Indeed, in the context of what is happening around them, their conflict between them pales by comparison with many of the internal and external problems they are both experiencing.

Diplomacy is the art of compromise, and in a crisis atmosphere some conflicting issues of lesser importance must give way in favor of the larger and more urgent issues. The crisis in Syria and its regional implications must top the Israeli-Turkish agenda. Turkey and Israel are surrounded by unfriendly nations, if not outright aggressive enemies, and thus, their collaboration, which is urged by the US, has become critically important, especially during the uncertainty that is sweeping the Middle East. The two countries can work together on a host of crucial issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Iran’s nuclear weapons program; and the Syrian crisis, where it is imperative that both countries aid in preventing Syria’s chemical and possibly biological weapons from falling into the hands of extremist groups. It is not suggested here that Israeli-Turkish collaboration can resolve any or all of these conflicts, but their full cooperation and sharing of intelligence could reduce or mitigate some of the tension. Together, and with the support of Western powers, they can influence the outcome of some of these conflicts.

It is understandable that Turkey would not want to make the first move, especially in light of the Arab upheavals and Turkey’s presumed leadership role in the Muslim world. The vast majority of the Arab states, however, are Sunni-dominated and are far more concerned over Iran becoming the dominant power in Syria, equipped with nuclear weapons (with the potential for further upheavals engulfing the region), than with Israel. The fact that this truth is not spelled out does not mean that it is not the prevailing sentiment.

Turkey and Israel now have a momentous opportunity to look anew at the simmering conditions in the region. They must work together to prevent some events from spinning out of control. Full collaboration between the two countries will at a minimum deter other regional players from undermining their interests with impunity.

About the Author
Dr Alon Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and Arab states. Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations between Israel and its neighboring countries and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs where he has taught courses on the Middle East and international negotiations. He also hosts “Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir”, a speaking series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers from around the world held each semester at NYU. He also regularly briefs at the US State Department for the International Visitors Program.