Israeli-Turkish Reconciliation Deal Offers Lifeline to Both Sides

Close relationship is of supreme strategic importance to Israel and Turkey, and Israel could have ended the crisis six years ago.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish ship Mavi Marmara arriving at Sarayburnu port in Istanbul in December 2010, as people wave Turkish and Palestinian flags.
The Mavi Marmara arriving at Sarayburnu port in Istanbul, December 2010, as people wave Turkish and Palestinian flags.Credit: Mustafa Ozer/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Israeli-Turkish reconciliation agreement is six years overdue. It could have been achieved within days of the tragic incident in May 2010, when Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists (a 10th died four years later from their injuries) aboard a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to the Gaza Strip. Immediately afterward, Turkey demanded only an apology and payment of compensation: Its demand for an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza hadn’t yet become the nonnegotiable condition that caused this multiyear delay.

Israel agreed to pay compensation and later, at the urging of U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized. This could have been an opportunity for it to remove the Gaza blockade – or at least agree to the terms ultimately included in the current agreement. After all, building a power plant, hospital and desalination facility, and sending aid through Ashdod Port won’t end the blockade or permit freedom of movement to and from Gaza, so Israel wouldn’t have been seen as capitulating.

On this issue, Turkey actually capitulated: It backed down from its ultimatum to end the blockade completely.

Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be seen as an Israeli achievement. Rather, it paints Turkey as the only country that still cares about 1.8 million Gazans who are actually Israel’s responsibility, and Israel as legitimizing Turkey’s ties with Hamas’ leadership in Gaza.

The clause stating that Turkey won’t let Hamas conduct military activity on its territory still enables Hamas to maintain representation there, use Turkey as a base for diplomatic activity and, above all, fundraise there.

Moreover, Turkey probably won’t succeed in persuading Hamas to use it as an intermediary in negotiating the return of Israelis missing in Gaza, since even before the agreement was signed, Turkey had acceded to Israel’s request to seek information about them from Hamas, but to no avail.

Hamas sees the missing Israelis – including the bodies of two soldiers who are presumed to have died in the 2014 Gaza war – as a bargaining chip with Israel, and it certainly won’t want to use them to reward Turkey for reconciling with Israel. And the agreement isn’t conditioned on their return, since Israel didn’t want to be seen as negotiating with Hamas.

This Israeli stance is peculiar, since if Hamas offered to conduct such negotiations, Israel would almost certainly agree.

But it would be a mistake to weigh the agreement’s costs and benefits through the prism of Hamas, or in terms of its financial price – $20 million, which Israel will pay into a fund to compensate the dead Turks. A close Israeli-Turkish relationship is of supreme strategic importance.

For a long time prior to the flotilla incident, Turkey needed Israel as a bridgehead to the United States. Today, it no longer needs Israel for this purpose; Israel’s deteriorating position in the European Union, and, to a great extent, in America as well, means it no longer has the importance it once had in this regard.

But Turkey, like Israel, is seeking new friends in the region following the collapse of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. One year after the flotilla, it severed ties with Syria. Its ties with Egypt hit the rocks in July 2013, when Erdogan refused to recognize the legitimacy of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s government.

The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, saw Turkey as a rival and treated it as persona non grata until the start of this year, when Saudi King Salman brought it into his Sunni coalition against Iran.

Libya, where Turkey had many investments, is falling apart. And Russia has made every effort to humiliate and damage Turkey ever since the Turks downed a Russian fighter plane near the Syrian border last year.

Israel can’t effect a Turkish reconciliation with Egypt or Russia, just as Turkey can’t effect a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement. But both have common interests beyond Israel’s desire to sell natural gas to Turkey and Turkey’s desire to diversify its natural gas sources so as to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Both are threatened by Syria’s civil war and have a major interest in influencing its outcome; both are dangerously close to the Islamic State group’s base of operations, and both are longtime stakeholders in U.S. and European policy in the Middle East.

It’s too soon to talk about bilateral military cooperation, but diplomatic and strategic coordination – both bilateral and multilateral, in conjunction with the United States and Europe – is certainly possible in the fairly near future.

It’s important to remember, therefore, that this isn’t a peace agreement between enemy states, but an agreement to rehabilitate relations between two countries and two peoples that enjoyed excellent relations in the past. Even if the agreement is belated, it is very much needed.



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