Of all Israel’s ties with Muslim countries, those with Turkey are the oldest. Until recently, in terms of strategy, that country was considered no less important than Egypt. The affair of the Gaza aid flotilla and the harsh and excessive comments by Turkey’s prime minister against Israel have dramatically shaken the stability of these ties. Israelis now perceive Turkey as an enemy that should be denounced, or at least boycotted.
But it should be pointed out that compared to Egypt, Turkey has for years maintained close and cordial ties with Israel at all levels. Israelis have considered it a sister nation, trade with Turkey has expanded, and military cooperation has been perceived as a given. Visits by the leaders of both countries have also become a standard part of our political lives. Turkey’s involvement in the indirect talks between Syria and Israel helped forge understandings between Damascus and Jerusalem, and normalization was not a subject Turkey and Israel disagreed on. Normalization actually preceded official ties between the two countries.
The change did not happen because of the victory of the Justice and Development Party and the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister. That party has been in power since 2002, and despite the dark prophecies that accompanied its rise to power, relations between the two countries continued normally. Turkey’s anger exploded when its prime minister felt betrayed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who allowed Turkey to try to mediate between Israel and Hamas on the eve of Operation Cast Lead. Turkey realized then that Israel considers it a given; that it has to agree with all of Israel’s whims.
Erdogan’s criticism of Israel is not different in substance than the criticism by other friends of Israel in Europe and the United States. But his style is more blatant and direct. Erdogan does not agree with Israel on continuing the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and he is finding hard to understand, like many Israelis, the logic behind the blockade after four years in which it has not achieved Israel’s goals. Erdogan’s backing of the flotilla was just a continuation of the view that the blockade cannot go on.
Israel can ignore Turkey’s serious arguments, slander its prime minister and describe the flotilla’s activists as terrorists. This will not be enough to remove the stain of the operation that dragged Israel’s image − not Turkey’s, eight of whose citizens were killed − into the mud internationally.
Israel, which is now struggling to save its good name, considers public relations the sole means for achieving its goals. But without wise policy, public relations will prove empty of substance. The first step is to rehabilitate relations with Turkey, especially with its prime minister.
For this, political courage is necessary, which will lift the blockade on Gaza Strip and bring Turkey closer to the region’s political process. Without all this, Israel can only continue being pleased with itself under the political blockade imposed on it.
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