When Will Turkish-Israeli Ties Fully Mend? That’s Up to Ankara

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There’s a gap of around $10 million between the price Turkey is demanding to resume full diplomatic ties and the price Israel is willing to pay. Some say the money isn’t important, what’s important is that talks are going on. That too is a kind of relationship.

Still, let’s remember the first Israeli offer of $100,000 for each of the nine Turkish civilians killed in the raid on the ship the Mavi Marmara in May 2010. Later, Israel’s generosity increased to $1 million each. Now it’s $2.2 million, and there’s no certainty Ankara will agree.

We should also remember that Turkey’s first demand was only for an apology from Israel, not compensation or any change in Jerusalem’s Gaza policy. But Israel’s response, so confident in its justness, its wallowing in the investigative committees — the international one led by New Zealand’s Geoffrey Palmer and the Israeli one led by former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel. Meanwhile, Israel’s brutal policy of blockading the Gaza Strip has set a new bar for Turkey: not only an apology and compensation, but also the lifting of the blockade.

Since then, the Mavi Marmara incident has become a matter of pride for both Israel and Turkey; any concession is seen as surrender, a blow to prestige and a loss in the battle against a country increasingly seen as the enemy. But the tourist boycott, severely impaired intelligence cooperation and the severing of strategic ties are far dearer than the compensation.

Israel has been described as a country seeking to subvert Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime. It has been described as a country that supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — defined as a terror group in Turkey — and one that has worked against Ankara in the international community and committed war crimes against the Palestinians.

Israelis, in turn, have described Turkey as a radical Islamic state, Iran’s ally, an enemy of the West, and a partner of Syrian President Bashar Assad (before the severely damaged relations with Syria). In short, Turkey has been seen as an enemy state in every sense.

The Syrian question

But despite these hostile narratives, interests tend to trump sensibilities, which is a good thing. Paradoxically, the Syrian crisis has helped bring Israel and Turkey closer together. The desire to form a joint regional policy on Syria, the fear that the Syrian civil war might overflow into Turkey and Israel, the empowering of Islamist groups affiliated with Al-Qaida in Syria, and the tension over a possible Israeli attack on Iran spurred Washington to put enormous pressure on Jerusalem and Ankara. Washington wanted to end this secondary conflict that could sabotage efforts against Syria and Iran.

In his dramatic performance at Ben-Gurion Airport just before the departure of U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Erdogan and provided the apology he had waited for two and a half years. But as in any performance, timing is the thing. The apology that could have calmed Turkey down three and a half years ago came too late. It will take another year for Israel to agree to complete the paragraph on compensation.

Along the way, very quietly, Israel also agreed to let Turkish shipments into Gaza, including construction materials. Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip is far from over, and the 1.7 million Palestinians there are having a tougher time than during the time of the flotilla. But as far as Turkey is concerned, Israel is paying its debt to Turkey.

More accurately, Turkey can’t complain to Israel in light of Egypt’s tough policy, which has closed off Gaza from every direction and demolished tunnels. Now that Turkey is seen as a foe of Egypt’s military regime because of its unreserved support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Ankara prefers to keep mum and not criticize the Egyptian closure of Gaza — and Israel benefits from this silence. From Turkey’s perspective, once the compensation has been resolved, Israel will have fulfilled Turkey’s demands with no concessions by Turkey.

All that remains is to decide when to finish calculating the compensation and resume full relations. Here too, the timetable will be determined in Ankara, not Jerusalem.

Turkey has to consider how the revived ties with Israel will affect its bid to rebuild its relationship with Iran, and whether it’s wise to resume relations just as Israel’s talks with the Palestinians appear to be breaking down. It has to consider whether the resumed ties could affect the rebuilding of Erdogan’s stature as the man who isolated Turkey in the region.

Pro-Palestinian activists wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during the welcoming ceremony for cruise liner Mavi Marmara at the Sarayburnu port of Istanbul December 26, 2010.Credit: Reuters

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