Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressing deputies at the parliament in Ankara, March 19, 2013. Photo by AFP
Text size

The past few days have been good to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. On Thursday, a domestic rival, Abbdullah Ojalan, leader of the separatist Kurds, announced a historic ceasefire, and on Friday his demands from his bitter rival Benjamin Netanyahu were conceded entirely. The precise wording of the apology, the precise phrasings that diplomats, negotiators, and presidential advisors have been laboring on for years aren't really important. The outcome was one: Israel has apologized, and has agreed to pay compensation and take steps towards lifting the siege on Gaza.

The points of agreement which could and should have been reached some three years ago have finally been reached, but the damage has already been done. For Israel, Turkey had become a rival with whom negotiating is futile. The diplomatic disconnect was almost absolute; only low-level envoys remained in the two countries, the defense cooperation grew smaller and smaller, acquisition deals for military equipment worth millions of dollars were suspended, and the deep sense of solidarity that has been forged between the citizens of Israel and Turkey over the past few decades was shattered. Only the trade between the two countries withstood the crisis, growing by 26 percent in 2011 and by a similar rate in 2012.

The public enmity with Israel played well into Erdogan's hands, who meanwhile tightened his ties with Syria's Bashar Assad and the regime in Iran. When the uprisings of the Arab Spring unraveled, he became a hero who, despite opposing intervention in Libya – largely due to Turkey's immense investments in the country – supported the new government there, urged Egypt's Mubarak to resign and then quickly fostered a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood's regime. His shaky relationship with Jerusalem added considerable weight to his legitimacy in the Arab world, which has traditionally been suspicious of Turkey because it isn't an Arab state and due to its close ties with Israel. Just months after the uprising began in Syria, Erdogan changed his attitude toward Assad as well. After making efforts to try and persuade Assad to carry out reforms, Erdogan realized that his personal relationship with Assad would not help him bring about changes in Syria. All of a sudden, Assad was transformed into a bitter enemy who needed to be removed, and Erdogan decided that Turkey would become a rear base for the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey now became the new axis driving events in the Middle East, with Turkey as the anchor for American policy vis-à-vis Syria, Iraq and even Iran, with which Turkey maintains widespread commercial ties despite the sanctions, having received a partial exemption.

Even though Israel believed that following the crisis in their relationship Turkey would still need its good services in strengthening Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and that the broken alliance benefited Turkey more than Israel, Erdogan proved that Turkey carries its own clout, with or without Israel. With that, Turkish influence on furthering the Middle East peace process or any attempt at mediation between Israel and the Palestinians was blocked due to the break in ties with Israel. However, even before the crisis, Israel did not allow Turkey to play a major role, and, in collaboration with Mubarak, made it clear that it was Egypt that represented the Palestinians. A further explosive element was planted, shattering the personal relationship between Erdogan and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. On the eve of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Olmert visited Erdogan’s home, from which he held indirect talks with Assad, in an attempt by Erdogan to facilitate dialogue between Syria and Israel. At the end of their meeting, Erdogan asked Olmert if he could talk to the heads of Hamas in an effort to stop rocket fire at Israel, in an attempt to avert Israeli military action. Olmert was already committed to embarking on this course of action and did not reply. He also did not take Erdogan’s call the following day. The operation started, sparking Erdogan’s rage, which led to a crisis that included his harsh condemnation of Israel at the Davos conference and his decision to storm out of TV studio where President Peres was also a guest. According to senior Turkish sources, Olmert’s behavior towards Erdogan had an enormous, long-term impact on the latter’s subsequent conduct with regard to Israel. A senior official told Haaretz that “if Olmert had behaved differently, realizing that he has a friend in Ankara who should be consulted, the Mavi Marmara crisis may have been avoided”.

The Mavi Marmara incident and the humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Israel became personal issues for Erdogan, who perceived his personal pride as Turkey’s pride, even at the expense of Turkey’s best interests. In fact, the fulfilling of Erdogan’s conditions by Israel became a Turkish national interest. It is doubtful whether the Syrian crisis on its own would have mended the rift between Israel and Turkey, since heavy American pressure exerted on Erdogan over the last two years did not change Erdogan’s position either. Erdogan stressed that any military action against Syria would only be carried out in coordination with NATO and with international support, and that military cooperation with Israel would only hamper attempts to remove Assad and to foster ties with the resistance forces and the opposition in Syria. It is the U.S., more than Turkey, that sees close ties between Israel and Turkey as playing a role in defeating Assad and as forming the basis of a regional alliance against Iran. The cool relations between Iran and Turkey in light of Turkey’s policies towards Syria, the political instability in Egypt, the weakness of Jordan’s King Abdullah II and fears of a dissolution of Syria or a takeover by radical Islamists in the country have all combined in Washington’s view to make the renewal of close Turkish-Israeli ties a burning issue that became priority during Obama’s visit to Israel.

Senior Turkish officials told Haaretz that the restoration of relations will commence over the next few days, taking place rapidly but cautiously. The staff at the embassy in Tel Aviv will be augmented, and a new ambassador may be appointed in the next few weeks. Visits by senior Turkish officials will then follow, possibly including one by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davetoglu. A more important issue is the restoration of the friendly atmosphere between the Israeli and Turkish people. Erdogan has proven before that he can create an atmosphere of national animosity as well as national reconciliation, as attested to by his transformation of public sentiment regarding conciliation with the Kurds. One would hope that he will use his charisma and talent with regard to relations with Israel as well. A positive public stance is now also required of Prime Minister Netanyahu, putting aside nitpicking accounts of gains and losses while embracing the renewal of relations.