Erdogan - AP - 21072011
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Photo by AP
Text size

For many months, Joseph Ciechanover and Ozdem Sanberk (the Israeli and Turkish representatives on the UN Palmer committee) tried to produce a truthful and just report that wouldn’t destroy Israel-Turkey relations. They failed, but not because of a lack of skill or patience.

If Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon had not insisted that Israel not apologize to Turkey, the United Nations report would have been a 105-page textbook on the strategy of the Gaza blockade and the tactics used to thwart attempted breaches of it. Another document among thousands that the UN has produced during its existence, most of which are buried in metal cabinets. It is possible that an international investigation would not have even been established and both sides would have been able to continue their relationship.

Sanberk, a pleasant man with rich diplomatic experience (including in the pre-Erdogan era), is one of the best-known public intellectuals in Turkey and a major supporter of relations with Israel. At a meeting in Ankara a few months ago, Sanberk said "Mistakes happen, and it is permissible to ask forgiveness when they happen. This is how friends behave when their relationship is important to them."

But between Israel and Turkey, honor has become more important than their relationship.

Turkey, despite its rush to recall its ambassador from Israel and downgrade ties, emphasized that these measures are directed against "the current government" and not against Israel or the Israeli public. With or without the report, parts of which, particularly the legitimacy of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, are unacceptable to Turkey, the Turkish government has not slammed the door on restoring ties with Israel. The conditions for restoring ties remain the same as they were when nine Turkish citizens were killed on the Mavi Marmara: an apology and compensation.

Last month, Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Receip Tayyip Erdogan, indicated that Turkey was ready to normalize ties with Israel and return them to what they were before the flotilla affair if Israel fulfilled both of those conditions. He believed that the estrangement between the two countries was bad for both. In fact, it is hard to find a senior official close to either Erdogan or Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that does not regret the difficulties that have arisen in the relationship between the two countries. But none of them think that Turkey should give up on its terms.

Naturally, Erdogan views his relationship with the Turkish public as more important than his relationship with Israel. His public commitment to receiving an Israeli apology and compensation killing of Turkish citizens has become an inseparable part of his political credibility that gives him public power. Turkey's foreign policy - as in an democratic country - is not divorced from domestic policy. Just as Erdogan did not hesitate to turn his back on Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite Syria's importance to the axis Erdogan was trying to build in the Middle East, and just as Erdogan made clear to Iran that he does not accept its dictates on Syria, Erdogan has not hesitated to harm ties with Israel after it has not accepted his terms.

Erdogan is not dismissive of strategic relationships, particularly since his stated goal is to make Turkey a regional political power. But his policy is based not only on political interests and strategic rationale but also on the worldview and ideology in which "political morality" plays a central role.

The Turkish policy is replete with apparent contradictions. On one hand, Erdogan attacks Israel for its blockade and attacks on Gaza while Turkey operates in the same manner against Kurdish PKK operatives inside Iraqi territory. "The difference is that Palestinians attack Israel because of the occupation while Turkey is attacked even though it is not an occupier," said a Turkish government adviser. "Resistance to occupation is a natural thing while Kurdish attacks in Turkish territory are pure terrorism."

Of course, one can disagree with that explanation and the concept behind it, but like Israel, Erdogan is sure that he is conducting just and moral policies, part of which is the demand for an Israeli apology.

The combination of ideology and strategic considerations thus offers avenues both for the easing of tensions as well as further deterioration. An apology will restore the relationship while a refusal to apologize will yield more punitive measures. From now on, there is no predetermined timetable, but every delay of an apology and all additional punitive measures will deepen not only the formal break in relations but also the almost familial closeness that existed between the two peoples. Honor, Ya'alon explained, is a strategic asset. He's right, as long as this honor does not explode in one's face and smash vital strategic interests.