Analysis | Israel-Turkey Breakdown Over? |

Erdogan, Netanyahu Reconciliation: Interests Triumph Over Ego and Politics

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There were three reasons behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan choosing to end the crisis between the two countries: Interests, interests, interests.

After three years in which Israel-Turkey relations were the victim of ego games and internal politics disguised as national pride, the two leaders understood that the damage done by the crisis was far greater than the benefits they could reap from a renewal of relations.

Netanyahu told the Erdogan in a phone conversation between the two leaders that he appreciated the comments made by the former to the Danish newspaper Politiken on Wednesday in which he took back the statements he previously made calling Zionism a form of racism. Erdogan explained that he was criticizing Israeli policies in Gaza and that his statements were misconstrued. Erdogan told Netanyahu that he cherishes the longstanding relationship between Israel and Turkey and between the Turkish people and the Jewish people, stressing that he would like to improve relations.

Both sides compromised and climbed down from their respective trees. Netanyahu folded and finally agreed to apologize after deciding against it at the last minute on a number of occasions during his last term in office. Israel's Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is the man who helped Netanyahu climb down from the tree. The indictment he served against former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pushed him out of the ministry, and freed the prime minister from the paralyzing fear that an apology would lead to the fall of his government.

Lieberman may have hurried to publish a harsh statement against Netanyahu's apology to Turkey on Friday, but he made do with shouting from the sidelines. From his sensitive legal position, and only less than a week after Israel's new coalition was sworn in, Lieberman, who secured ministerial portfolio's and positions for most of his MKs, has no interest in breaking up the coalition.

The defense establishment also helped Netanyahu off the tree. Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, even in his last days in the job, pressured Netanyahu to end the crisis with Turkey. The Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Mossad head Tamir Pardo, who were in on the secret of contacts with Ankara, also supported the apology to Turkey. Gantz, who was sure that Israel needed to improve ties with Turkey on the strategic level, insisted that any agreement to end the breakdown in relations would include cancelation of legal proceedings against IDF soldiers and officers involved in the Gaza flotilla incident.

Erdogan also folded. Since the Marmara crisis, the Turkish prime minister refused to commit to canceling these legal proceedings, and to guaranteeing that Turkey would not initiate any more in the future. Erdogan also wanted to humiliate Israel and get a public apology from Netanyahu broadcast on television. Along with that, he repeatedly demanded that the blockade on the Gaza Strip be lifted. In the end, he only got half of what he wanted.

The Turkish prime minister promised U.S. President Barack Obama to stop his harsh public criticism of Israel. Erdogan was surprised by the strong American response to the speech in which he said that Zionism is a crime against humanity. The Americans were furious and publically rebuked him. In actuality, Netanyahu's message of apology to Turkey was only made possible after Erdogan apologized himself for his remarks. On the eve of Obama's visit to Israel, the Turkish prime minister announced that he had been misunderstood, and that he only meant to criticize the State of Israel over Gaza.

But what led more than anything else to the two leaders agreeing to put an end to the crisis was the serious deterioration of the crisis in Syria. Turkey is keeping its eye on developments in its southern neighbor. It is no coincidence that Erdogan only a few days ago signed a historic agreement with the Kurdish underground, some of whose bases are located in Syria.

In a year in which it seems likely that the Iranian nuclear issue will reach a tipping point, shared interest is only growing. Erdogan may like calling on the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the nuclear reactor in Dimona, but the centrifuges in Fordo and Natanz worry him far more. As in September 2007 in Syria, he will not shed a tear if Israel or the U.S. "solve" this problem.

The two men who accompanied this diplomatic breakthrough are Joseph Ciechanover, former director general of the foreign ministry, and Yaakov Amidror, national security advisor. Ciechanover was Netanyahu's special envoy on the issue, who was involved throughout the tedious negotiations with Turkey. There were times when he thought his task had become futile. Still, he continued working and believed that in the end he would succeed.

Amidror, who joined Ciechanover in his meetings with the Turks only over the past few months, perhaps contributed more than anyone else to Netanyahu making the decision to apologize. Amidror, who is emerging as more of a professional and moderate voice than the image he has built of himself, did not give up on the issue, and pressed Netanyahu until he convinced him.

The other important figures behind the decision are President Obama, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, and another group of senior officials in the White House officials and in the State Department. The claim by the Prime Minister's Office that the decision to apologize was not taken due to American pressure is, at best, not accurate.

President Obama raised the issue in every discussion he had with Netanayhu and Erdogan over the past three years.And there were many. The improved relations between Obama and Netanyahu, coupled with the close and intimate relations between Erdogan and Obama, helped seal the deal. The solution to the crisis between the two countries was one of the aims of Obama's visit to Israel, and it is the main success he has left with.

In Israel, there are no illusions as to relations with Turkey. It will take a long time, if it ever happens, for ties to return to what they once were. Despite this, Netanyahu hopes that the end of the flotilla crisis will open the door to a new relationship. One where, when there are disagreements, and there will be, they will be managed through diplomatic channels and not remarks by Erdogan against Israel on television.

But more than that, Netanyahu hopes that this new page in the relationship will bring stability to the turbulent Mideast. A years-long alliance between the two countries that stabilized the region fell apart at just the time when it was needed more than ever. If Israel and Turkey learn to work together again, many negative developments will be prevented, and there may even be some positive ones. 

The person who worked with Amidror and Ciechanover on the reconciliation agreement was Turkey's Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioğlu. Sinirlioğlu, who formerly served as the Turkish ambassador to Israel, worked incredibly hard over the past three years in order to safeguard any slight chance of rehabilitating ties with Israel.

After Friday's phone call between Netanyahu and Erdogan, Sinirlioğlu called Amidror and asked him how he how he felt about the breakthrough. "Like a baby who has just been born and is waiting to see how his father and mother will look after him," Amidror replied.   

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: Archive

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