Israel Is Missing an Opportunity to Mend Ties With Turkey

Netanyahu's government, by supporting a passive approach to the Arab Spring, is leading to a freeze in Israel-Turkey relations. The more this freeze continues, the more difficult it will be to alter.

In the last couple of days, Israel's Counter Terrorism Bureau has warned Israeli citizens against travelling to Turkey for fear of terrorist attacks, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Israel of a "massacre" in Gaza. But these headlines shouldn't override the fact that there has been a relative calm in Israel-Turkey relations recently, following the acrimony over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident nearly two years ago. It may be surprising for many Israelis to discover that there are voices in Turkey consistently calling for closer links between Jerusalem and Ankara, and that these figures see hope in disorder: that the regional turmoil can in fact serve as a catalyst for mending Israel-Turkey relations.

Just when the Israeli-Turkish crisis reached its peak in September 2011, SETA, a leading Turkish think tank, noted: “Israel will have to decide on a road map to face with the consequences of the ongoing [regional] transformation and its increasing isolation." Ufuk Ulutaş, the policy brief's author, claimed that Israel serially misreads regional developments and that in such a reality, the “crisis with Turkey only furthers Israeli isolation in the region, and will have serious implications for Israel in the long-run."

Peres, Erdogan
AP

Several months have passed, and once again there is a call from Turkey to draw closer. Dr. Tarık Oğuzlu from ORSAM – the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies – noted in February 2012 that “the emerging dynamics in the Middle East hold out the possibility of bringing Turkey closer to Israel in the near future. The recent chill in Turkey’s relations with Syria of Assad, Iraq of Maliki and Iran of Ahmedinejad might once again bring Turkey and Israel closer to each other under the guise of emerging realpolitik factors.”

Away from the podium and the TV cameras, there has been some quiet between Israel and Turkey. Until the recent Gaza violence, PM Erdoğan found a new focus for his fierce rhetoric – Paris, where the French Parliament has voted in favor of a bill making it a crime to deny that the 1915 killings of Armenians by the Ottomans was genocide. The Air forces of Israel and Turkey resumed their mechanism of coordination, and international actors that are in touch with Ankara are reporting that among Turkish diplomatic circles there is genuine interest in mending relations with Israel.

Nevertheless, Turkey did not give up on its demands for an apology and compensation from Israel as a result of the 2010 flotilla incident. On an official level, the contacts between the two countries are almost non-existent, mainly due to a Turkish decision to minimize contacts with Israel. In parallel, Erdoğan is still portrayed in Israel as a radical leader, who promotes anti-Israeli sentiments and policies in the region. This, at a time when Turkey and the U.S. are enjoying warm ties and strong coordination, and when U.S. President Barack Obama is even naming the Turkish Prime Minister as one of his closest allies.

I suggest that developments in the region can and do provide conditions that can contribute to improving Israel-Turkey relations, as claimed by Oğuzlu. Even the political conditions in Turkey, following Erdogan’s landslide victory in last year's general elections, can assist this. And indeed, in August 2011, the sides – through their representatives in the UN committee that investigated the flotilla incident and with the assistance of intense U.S. mediation – already drafted a reconciliation agreement between them. This agreement addressed most of the Israeli interests and concerns, and enjoyed the support of central agencies and individuals in the Israeli government.

However, Netanyahu decided to side with hawkish Ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman, who objected to the draft agreement, putting a halt to the efforts to restore normal relations between Israel and Turkey. The Israeli government in effect gave up on Turkey and on the Middle East, and turned to crafting alternative alliances with Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria – ties that, in my opinion, only consolidate Israel’s isolation in its immediate neighborhood.

Rather than the lack of shared interests or even self-interest, we must blame the political conditions in Israel for the lack of any progress in terms of cooperation between Israel and Turkey. The current Israeli government, as well as Israel’s current foreign-policy paradigm – that supports a passive approach to the Arab Spring and that is focused on threats rather than opportunities – leads to a freeze in Israel-Turkey relations. The more this freeze continues, the more difficult it will be to alter.

The opportunity to mend Israel-Turkey relations is still there, and the draft reconciliation agreement of August 2011 can still be tried to put into practice. This should be a top policy priority for Israel, given Turkey’s regional importance and given Israel’s need to better reach out to the Arab Spring.

Turkey’s role in assisting peaceful transformations in the Arab world positions it as a country that can have a moderating effect on some countries in the region, and that can serve as a channel between Israel and new Arab regimes. This means that having good relations with Turkey could be even more of an asset to Israel than before. There are many in Israel, Turkey and the international community that are eager to help the sides reach the breakthrough, but is someone in Jerusalem actually willing to make the move?

Dr. Nimrod Goren is Chair of Mitvim - the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, a progressive foreign policy think tank. He is an Adjunct Professor for Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and among his fields of expertise is Turkey's foreign policy.