Taksim Square Protests Put the Deep Freeze on Israel-Turkey Reconciliation

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ISTANBUL – Taksim Square was quiet Sunday morning. A large Turkish flag flew in the middle of the square, and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk still hangs on the cultural center near Gezi Park. The only sign of the stormy protests just a few hours before were five water cannons and a few dozen members of the riot police, some in uniform, some in plain clothes.

I took advantage of my stopover in Istanbul – just a few hours – to see the place that sparked the historic protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Like Benjamin Netanyahu after the last election, even if Erdogan won't be sent home tomorrow, his standing is on the wane. Netanyahu is no longer King Bibi, and Erdogan is no longer the sultan.

One of the surprising things in Gezi Park, whose planned demolition and replacement with a shopping mall triggered the uprising, is its size. What seems like Istanbul’s Central Park in news reports looks more like the 7.4-acre Meir Park on Tel Aviv's King George Street. Maybe that's the best evidence that the protest in Turkey isn't about the uprooting of a few trees, it's against Erdogan and everything he stands for.

The protests in Turkey have undeniable implications for Israel, affecting the reconciliation efforts first of all. Officials at Israel's Foreign Ministry, the only agency keeping tabs on what's happening in Turkey, say that in the current political atmosphere the chances for reconciliation are nil. In his shaky position, Erdogan will find it very hard to compromise on the compensation to the families of the people killed in the Gaza flotilla back in 2010. He also won't be able to pass the bill canceling the measures launched against Israeli troops and officers.

Netanyahu, who apologized after a three-year crisis in relations with Turkey and under heavy American pressure, is very frustrated over the stalemate in the reconciliation talks. While Netanyahu doesn't regret apologizing to Turkey, he still feels he was tricked. If there's anything he hates, it's looking like a sucker. Netanyahu didn't get what he expected in exchange — the return of the ambassadors and the normalization of ties. He doesn't plan to make any gestures to Erdogan soon.

Gaza off the agenda

Netanyahu’s frustration is understandable, but a look at the reconciliation efforts should leave him content. Netanyahu has won the battle with Erdogan. There is wall-to-wall agreement among Israel’s allies in the West that as far as a rapprochement with Israel is concerned, it's up to Erdogan. The international criticism of Erdogan’s foot-dragging on the issue joins the mountains of criticism against him over his suppression of the protests and the anti-Semitic statements by senior people in his government.

The protest in Turkey also took Erdogan’s visit to Gaza off the agenda. Despite recent reports, it's hard to see how Erdogan can make time for a tour of the Gaza Strip. Even if he was mulling that, the revolution in Egypt has buried the subject. The only way for Erdogan to enter Gaza is through Israel. For that to happen, he has to make progress on the reconciliation.

Netanyahu can also be pleased that Erdogan’s behavior has made many of his Turkish opponents side with Israel regarding the reconciliation and other matters. Many Turkish politicians and journalists who never showed any support for Israel haven't hesitated to support it now. A poll by a Turkish research institute even found that roughly 40 percent of Turks support the thaw following the apology.

Even if the formal reconciliation is frozen for now, relations have warmed in other spheres. The tension in which Israeli diplomats in Ankara and Istanbul were living has receded slightly, economic and commercial relations continue to strengthen. So even if the ambassadors don't return to their offices in Ankara and Tel Aviv, when it comes to Turkey, Netanyahu has put Israel on the right side of the barricade.

Riot police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators in a protest against Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara. May 31, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament in Ankara on May 7, 2013.Credit: Reuters