Israel Must Salvage Its Last Refuge in the Middle East

Relations with Turkey, Israel's last refuge in the region, should not be placed in the treacherous hands of a small group of arrogant, domineering Israeli politicians.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

ISTANBUL - The conveyor belt at Istanbul Ataturk Airport spit out only two bags. The Turkish Airlines flight from Tel Aviv was packed full, but only two people got out. The Turkish airline is still used by Israelis, but almost exclusively for connecting flights. They've been boycotting Turkey - a preferred destination until recently - and fearing it.

The main injured party: the Israelis, as the curtain falls on the last Middle Eastern destination open to them. Egypt has become dangerous, Sinai's beaches have become graveyards for hotels and dreams - as Adar Primor eloquently described it in these pages this week - and Jordan isn't even mentioned. We've returned to our point of departure: isolated geographically, shut in, afraid, hostile, arrogant and garrisoned. An Israeli will never again meet with Arabs or Muslims, and will only be fed twisted images in the media: fundamentalists, Islamists, terrorists; all of them threatening, loathsome and Israel haters.

You can't overestimate the damage and loss. While losing Egypt wasn't exclusively our fault, the estrangement from Turkey is our own doing, and we can't be proud of it. It's hard to understand how Israel can allow itself to lose Turkey, how the Israelis can forgive their politicians and generals - the seekers of "national pride" and destroyers of Israel's status - for bringing relations with this rising, fascinating local power to such a dangerous low over nearly nothing.

The door to Turkey is still open. Do we really want to live in such unsplendid and threatening isolation in this region? Do we really enjoy the retreat to the fortress, alienated from our surroundings? Don't we understand that such an Israeli citadel can't rely forever on its sword without acceptance in the region?

This week, accompanied by television cameras, Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh boarded the Mavi Marmara, which is docked like a monument in the Bosphorus - a memorial to the useless killing of Turkish civilians, for which Israel, in its imbecilic conceit, has never deigned to apologize for. Last week, the Turkish army also criminally killed civilians - 35 Kurdish cigarette and diesel smugglers riding donkeys whom it mistook for weapons smugglers.

But Turkish leaders quickly apologized for the massacre near the Iraqi border and offered compensation to the victims' families. Turkey also appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the killings, which have set off a storm of public debate. The press is discussing it critically, and the photograph of weeping friends at the grave of a youth, whose brother was also killed, appeared on the front pages of Turkish newspapers.

"A massacre is a massacre, even if it happened by mistake," wrote columnist Ahmet Insel in center-left newspaper Radikal. In Istanbul some people claimed this week that there's a difference between the events on the Mavi Marmara and the killing of the cigarette smugglers: The Israelis knew they were killing civilians, while the Turkish pilots mistakenly thought they were taking out terrorists.

In any case, Israel should have acted as Turkey did and apologized long ago for the killings on the Mavi Marmara. It's still not too late. The alternative is much worse for Israel: losing Turkey, her last ally in the region, a rising economic and political power. The economic data published this week say it all: A country that in 2002 exported goods worth $36 billion increased the figure to $135 billion last year, its economy growing 8 percent as neighboring Europe falls apart. Israel, by the way, still appears on the list of 20 countries to whom Turkey's exports grew in 2011 - a sign that maybe not all is lost.

Istanbul is more gorgeous and fascinating than ever. The Grand Bazaar is full of people, even without Israeli tourists. The fish sandwiches on the Bosphorus, the shawarma, the yogurt, the cheeses and the sweets are absolutely delicious, and the regime here proves that there is such a thing as democratic, moderate Islam. Relations with this country, Israel's last refuge in the region, should not be placed in the treacherous hands of a small group of arrogant, domineering Israeli politicians.

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