Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc made a surprising remark about the Israel Defense Forces’ operation in the Gaza Strip when he spoke to the press in Ankara last Thursday. Arinc, who is considered a key player in the Turkish government, said: “Turkey and Israel should communicate with one another, at least regarding Gaza, in an effort to bring an end to the violence.”
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Arinc may have been speaking sensibly, but the current state of Israeli-Turkish relations makes conversing over Gaza an impossible task. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had good reason to hurriedly pull the topic off the agenda and clarify that “it is preferable that other countries work with Israel.”
Like the civil war in Syria, the Gaza crisis makes clear the extent of the damage done by the vacuum that was created by the cut-off in Israel-Turkey ties. Both states, whose relations over the past four years have been constantly deteriorating, are incapable of overcoming the personal insults and games of honor in order to cooperate in strategic scenarios that are critical to the national security of both countries.
One of the only people to point out that failure since the start of the Gaza operation is Labor MK Isaac Herzog. Like many of his colleagues, Herzog has moved between television studios giving interviews, but unlike others who have lauded the government, he emphasized Netanyahu’s failure regarding Turkey.
“Netanyahu’s mistake was in not genuinely trying to solve the crisis with Turkey,” said Herzog. “Because of the rift with Turkey, Israel is in a state of strategic inferiority and is finding it difficult to set in motion a diplomatic move that would lead to a cease-fire with Hamas.”
The crisis in relations between Turkey did not begin with the Gaza flotilla of May 2010, but with Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Since that Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu has not only failed to rehabilitate Jerusalem’s ties with Ankara, he has not made any effort to prevent them from further declining.
Netanyahu has not attributed enough importance to the Turkey imbroglio and has spent relatively little time on it compared to other issues. He failed to identify in time the great strategic damage caused to Israel as a result of the split with Turkey and failed to deal properly with the flotilla incident, in which nine international activists (eight of them Turkish) were killed by Israeli troops that were met with resistance while boarding their ship to prevent it from reaching Gaza.
Even when Netanyahu decided to try to end the crisis with Turkey, he went about it amateurishly. He changed envoys like socks, acted hesitantly, allowed himself to be dragged behind Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman instead of taking the lead and did what he tends to do – vacillate. He wanted to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla incident and bring the crisis to an end, but never did.
Netanyahu had at least five chances over the past two-and-a-half years to take a stand and move toward conciliation. The United States pressed for it, the security establishment supported it, the Foreign Ministry’s professional echelons encouraged it and even the government’s legal advisers recommended it – but every time, Netanyahu backed down at the last minute.
This paralysis resulted mainly from Lieberman’s opposition to an Israeli apology. Netanyahu was so concerned that Lieberman would batter him politically and present him as weak and limp that he decided not to decide. Even when Lieberman clarified that he would not stand in the way of getting Israel’s relations with Turkey back on track, Netanyahu was worried that this was a nasty political trick and preferred to avoid reaching a decision.
Those who oppose appeasing Turkey, with Lieberman heading the list, used the excuse of national honor to justify their stance. They claimed Erdogan was only trying to humiliate Israel and that one minute after he got an apology for the flotilla events, he would go back to attacking Israel with all his strength.
Erdogan is not completely blameless; he is not a lover of Zion nor will he join the Likud, but he is a powerful and influential regional leader. He is considered to be the Muslim leader who is closest to U.S. President Barack Obama, and the crisis between Jerusalem and Ankara does not prevent the U.S. from maintaining close strategic ties with Turkey.
But Erdogan, too, has been hurt by the crisis with Israel. Until four years ago Ankara would engage with Jerusalem on matters relating to Syria, the Palestinians and Iran. Erdogan lost an important asset, even if he would never admit it.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt and Jerusalem’s disconnection from the presidential bureau in Cairo makes it hard for Israel to shape a diplomatic exit from Operation Pillar of Defense. Israel does not currently have any Arab or Muslim strategic allies that maintain close ties with Hamas and are capable of being an appropriate mediator.
The operation in Gaza proves that even if national honor is important, national security is hundreds of times more important. After the cannons are silenced and the Israeli election is over, Netanyahu (assuming he retains the premiership) must make repairing relations with Turkey a top priority. Even if he doesn’t like Erdogan, we are likely to need him next time round.