ROME – The Waldorf Astoria Cavalieri Hotel is perched atop Rome’s highest hill. From the ninth floor, with the city visible behind him in all its beauty, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced the completion of a reconciliation deal with Turkey. After a year in which he has hit new heights of populism, Netanyahu spoke soberly. For the first time in a long time, he sounded statesmanlike and moderate and didn’t assail his critics.
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One can level a great deal of criticism at Netanyahu’s handling of the Turkish issue in recent years. He didn’t understand the severity of the bilateral tensions created by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008. Thus when he took office a few months later, he didn’t attribute sufficient importance to Turkey and didn’t work to prevent further deterioration. Moreover, he frequently worsened the situation through his own public statements against Turkey and its leaders, those of his mouthpiece Israel Hayom, and those of his cabinet ministers, first and foremost then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Netanyahu also didn’t understand the danger posed by a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza or the diplomatic complications that could arise if Israel forcibly intercepted the ships by sending naval commandos aboard the largest, the Mavi Marmara. Both the state comptroller and the Turkel Committee, set up to investigate the affair, harshly criticized the government’s conduct in the days before the raid, the hasty last-minute discussion by the diplomatic-security cabinet that focused mainly on how to explain the operation to the world, and Netanyahu’s deafness to the warnings of ministers without portfolio but with common sense, like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, who foresaw what would happen.
In the years following the flotilla, Netanyahu made countless other mistakes with regard to Turkey. He appointed Moshe Ya’alon to conduct negotiations with the Turks, despite the fact that Ya’alon took an extremely hawkish line and rejected any compromise, even the smallest. He allowed Lieberman to continue assailing the Turks at every opportunity. He climbed tall trees again and again by declaring that he wouldn’t concede and wouldn’t apologize, and on several occasions, he even retreated from signing a prepared draft agreement at the last moment.
The biggest criticism that could be leveled at Netanyahu is why he signed now rather than one or two or four years ago. If this deal is strategically important for Israel, why not seek to complete it earlier? The crisis only deepened as the years passed, and reaching an agreement became even harder – both for the Turks and in terms of the political constraints on Israel’s side.
Netanyahu doesn’t completely reject this criticism, but claims that only now have conditions for signing the agreement fully ripened: The Turks waived some of their demands, while Israel achieved maximal satisfaction of its demands. He may be right, but it’s definitely possible that with less ego and more judgment, the exact same agreement could have been reached a few months after the flotilla incident.
One can understand why right-wing voters, who in recent years heard the prime minister speak out harshly against Turkey and its leadership, are now justifiably angry at Netanyahu. Those leftists who are calling Netanyahu a hypocrite and charging that had a Labor-led government reached the exact same agreement, he and his mouthpiece Israel Hayom would have rained down fire and brimstone in an effort to thwart it, are also correct.
What’s impossible to understand, however, is the criticism by members of the opposition, from Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog through hell-raiser du jour MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) to Meretz leader Zehava Galon. All these Knesset members, who just a few months ago were attacking Netanyahu for having destroyed relations with Turkey, have set new records for hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness by attacking the very same reconciliation deal that they were urging Netanyahu to sign six years already. After all, wouldn’t Herzog have singed the exact same agreement had he won the election, or gladly marketed it to the world had his party joined the coalition a month ago with himself as Netanyahu’s foreign minister?
Netanyahu – via special envoy Joseph Ciechanover, former National Security Advisor Joseph Cohen and his acting replacement, Jacob Nagel – racked up quite a few achievements during the negotiations with Turkey. The most significant strategic achievement from Netanyahu’s perspective is that he got the Turks to fold on their demand for a complete end to Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. This Turkish demand is the reason why the flotilla sailed to begin with. Thus the reconciliation agreement as it stands now effectively constitutes a Turkish admission that it erred by letting the flotilla sail and a Turkish acknowledgment of Israel’s security needs with respect to Gaza, including its demand that all imports to Gaza must pass through Ashdod Port.
Moreover, neither Hamas’ operations in Turkey nor the four Israelis missing in Gaza were part of the original agreement, since they aren’t related to the Israeli-Turkish crisis. Israel simply inserted both issues into the talks in an effort to achieve something. In neither case did Israel get everything it wanted, but it did get things from Turkey it was never supposed to get. Even if some of those things, like Turkey’s promise to pressure Hamas to resolve the issue of the missing Israelis, are merely declarations of intent, it’s better to have them than not to have them.
Much of the criticism from the right, and also from the left, relates to the $20 million Israel will pay in compensation to the families of Turkish nationals killed aboard the Mavi Marmara. This amount, over which Turkey also compromised, was set more than two years ago, so it’s not clear where all these critics were until now. Moreover, anyone who thinks the crisis could have been resolved without paying compensation is either nave or simply doesn’t want to reconcile with Turkey.
Many people who deal with Turkey think Erdogan and Netanyahu are more similar than either would like to think in terms of their political conduct. It took both of them six years to do an impressive U-turn, go back to square one and hit “reset” on the bilateral relationship.
The reconciliation agreement won’t restore Israeli-Turkish relations to the honeymoon they enjoyed until eight years ago. Yet neither country gained anything from the prolonged crisis, and both actually lost in certain respects. Restoring relations and rebuilding trust will take time, but there’s a non-negligible chance that both Israel and Turkey will reap many diplomatic, security and economic rewards by doing so.
The reconciliation agreement with Turkey is one of the most significant diplomatic decisions Netanyahu has made since entering the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009. The decision should have been made long since, but that doesn’t make it less courageous or less correct.
Netanyahu bears less than half the responsibility for the deterioration of relations with Turkey; the remainder falls on Erdogan. But for that very reason, he deserves much credit for his efforts to end the crisis. Now all that remains for Netanyahu to do is get the diplomatic-security cabinet and the public to approve the agreement. And that will not be easy.