Israel's Deal With Turkey Could Stave Off Next Gaza War

Living conditions should improve in the Strip and Israel gains a new channel of mediation, even if there won't be joint training of pilots or major new arms deals like in the past.

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Israeli military forces on the border with Gaza during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.
Israeli military forces on the border with Gaza during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israel-Turkey reconciliation deal is apparently the lesser of evils; neither a rare strategic achievement nor the national humiliation that some of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals claim. Ironically, it’s the Prime Minister’s Office that’s conveying peace and reconciliation, while opposition leader Isaac Herzog makes empty speeches about the naval commandos’ lost honor.

The agreement was necessitated by circumstance. For six years Israel has been on the diplomatic outs with the country that had been its best ally in the region. Ties between the two will never be as close as they were before.

As long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in charge, we probably can’t expect more than an economic upgrade predicated on the natural-gas deal (the subject of deep disagreement in Israel) and an easing of Ankara’s hostility. The Mavi Marmara incident was an obstacle that had to be removed, so Israel had to compromise, and the outcome doesn’t seem intolerable.

Israel had to give way because it’s largely to blame for the Marmara incident. In May 2010, the government and military walked into a trap laid by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a violent bunch of Islamic extremists with ties to Erdogan and his party.

The Marmara incident, despite innumerable efforts to rewrite its history, was handled badly. The Netanyahu-Ehud Barak government insisted on banging its head into a brick wall and didn’t seriously consider letting the Turkish flotilla reach Gaza. The tight blockade the Defense Ministry even banned coriander was portrayed as necessary and appropriate payback to Hamas, which at the time still held Gilad Shalit. Of course, the government eased the blockade, under international pressure, shortly after the Marmara incident.

The failure was all-encompassing. The political leadersp barely inquired into the military preparations. (“We say the what, they say the how” was how then-Defense Minister Barak justified the approach to the Turkel committee that examined the incident.)

Then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi didn’t bother to visit the situation room during the operation. Military Intelligence missed the significance of details the flotilla’s organizers sent out on social media about their plans. And the navy’s operational plan didn’t suit the circumstances.

The bottom line is that naval commandos armed mainly with paint guns slid down a rope to the ship’s deck to find dozens of violent activists waiting for them with clubs and chains. A few commandos were taken hostage and brought below deck, where they were abused by the Turks (whom the international media called “peace activists”) before being rescued by their fellow commandos.

Amid this danger, the Israelis were forced to use live fire. The result was the killing of nine Turks and a crisis that took six years to resolve.

The agreement is expected to improve the two countries’ coordination on matters such as the military successes of the alliance behind the Assad regime in Syria. But the reconciliation won’t translate into joint training of air force pilots, as in the ‘90s, and it’s doubtful it will lead to major new arms deals.

The main benefit the parties expect, in addition to natural-gas trade and the expansion of tourism (even though the warning regarding attacks on Israeli tourists in Turkey by the Islamic State still stands), has to do with Gaza. Israel gains another channel of mediation and restraint vis-a-vis the Hamas government, in addition to the ties between the group’s leaders in the Strip, Egypt and Qatar. But separate channels can also be a source of competition and friction, as seen in the 2014 Gaza war.

As a result, the economic question is even more important than the diplomatic talks. The No. 1 risk of a new war with Hamas is based on Gaza’s harsh living conditions. At first, Turkey will help transport goods via Ashdod Port and with Israeli security supervision. (Turkey had to waive its demand for the complete lifting of the blockade.)

Later, aid will include the supply of drinking water and the construction of a new hospital in Gaza. These steps could definitely help avoid a new war. Maybe in the future it will even be possible to push the idea of building an artificial island to serve as a port for Gaza, as Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has proposed.

It seems these proposals should seriously be considered; after all, intransigence over coriander led to flotillas and the Mavi Marmara, and Israeli inflexibility over easing economic sanctions helped bring on the war two years ago (and Israel increased fourfold the volume of goods entering Gaza after that war).

Israel also takes credit for Turkey’s promise to close Hamas’ international headquarters on its territory, even though Saleh Arouri, the head of the office, moved the operations base to the Gulf a few months ago.

Can Turkey help bring back from Gaza the two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers that Hamas holds there? For now, it seems unlikely. Hamas wants Israel to release Palestinian prisoners in return, and Netanyahu will have a hard time making additional concessions amid criticism from the right over the reconciliation with Turkey, including the reservations of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

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