ISTANBUL - Friends and family sounded worried: "Istanbul? Isn't it dangerous there right now?" But travel warnings are cut off from reality. Despite the flotilla, the crisis in relations and the unrestrained condemnations of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there have been no reports of Israelis encountering any problems in Turkey.
The border inspectors at the Istanbul's Ataturk Airport are a lot more courteous and efficient than their U.S. counterparts. No one in the streets, restaurants or hotel, and no one with whom I spoke with changed expression upon hearing that we were from Israel or when we spoke Hebrew in public.
I was in Turkey because I was invited to a conference on the crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations sponsored by the Turkish trade association and Turkey's Bogazici University. Our Kemalist hosts are not exactly the biggest supporters of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, but for all their apathy toward the political winds blowing from Ankara, they are also critical of Jerusalem.
From our hosts' perspective, bilateral ties began to be strained at the end of 2008, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, several days after Ehud Olmert met with Erdogan in Ankara. The two leaders had been trying to find a way to make a breakthrough in Israel's ties with Syria. Olmert did not even hint about an upcoming war, and Erdogan was deeply insulted when the operation began.
"In Turkey there had been admiration for Israel, which built a paradise in the desert, and today there is concern for the Palestinians," said Refik Ezran, an economics professor at the university. "For all my friendship with Israel and with Jews, I too am filled with anger over the degradation of the Palestinians, which reached its peak in Gaza. The destruction of institutions, schools and hospitals turns human beings into animals. [Israel] must improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, or at least show that it has serious intentions."
Volkan Vural, a former Turkish ambassador to Israel who played an important role in shaping the Israeli-Turkish alliance in the previous decade, didn't like the fact that a Turkish ship led the May 31 Gaza-bound flotilla raided by the Israel Navy, but has difficulty understanding why Israel refuses to apologize to the Turks for killing civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara. Vural rejects the the opinion that has taken root in Israel, which maintains that Turkey is becoming the new Iran.
"The Erdogan government doesn't deserve the criticism," he said. "His party went from political Islam to conservative democracy. The element of cultural identity and Islam has recently been added to the mix, but not at a dangerous level. The majority here would oppose bringing Islam into foreign policy."
To improve Israeli-Turkish ties, we must look to the French model. France was Israel's strategic partner, which reportedly provided it with a nuclear reactor in Dimona. And then Charles de Gaulle came to power, and he gradually moved away from Israel and toward the Arab world. Just like Erdogan.
The Six-Day War was De Gaulle's flotilla - an opportunity to shatter the alliance with Israel and declare an arms embargo. In Israeli eyes, that was an unforgivable betrayal; to the French, Israel looked like a belligerent and law-breaking country when it responded to the embargo by hijacking the Cherbourg boats.
Formal ties have never flourished since - not even under Nicolas Sarkozy, the most pro-Israeli president of the Fifth Republic - but that has not had an impact on the thriving trade, the mass tourism, or the cultural and academic ties. Many Israelis love Paris, and they don't care if the Israel Air Force flies in French Mirages or American F-16s.
That's the sort of thing that needs to happen with Turkey too. Istanbul and Tel Aviv can fix what Ankara and Jerusalem broke. Mutual trade has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of the year. Israeli tourism has gone down, but it can return to its previous levels. And the prospect of bringing together the secular elites of both countries - who share the dream, and the challenges, of integrating into the West, as well as the anxiety over religious ascendance - is an opportunity. Secular Turks are similar to secular Tel Avivians; There is a new restaurant in the Pera quarter of Istanbul, "Bird", that attracts a stylish crowd and it's tough to get a table, just as in Rothschild Boulevard's Cantina.
It won't be simple. "Your idea is all well and good," said one of the professors hosting us. "But it's very hard for us to get a visa to go to Israel, or even to get close to the closely guarded consulate or the embassy."
It's difficult to believe that will change any time soon. All the same, said Vural, "a way must be found to overcome the crisis and forge new ties."
"Maybe not as close as they were in the past, but proper ones," he said. "It's in the interest of both countries, of the region, and of the Westernization process of Turkey."
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