Israel’s recent apology to the Turkish people can be attributed directly to one person – Barack Hussein Obama. The American president applied moderate pressure on Jerusalem within accepted legal limits, while his secretary of state, John Kerry, did the same in Ankara.
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Although Israel says the situation in Syria is the main reason for the apology, and although Turkey says it forced Israel’s hand, Washington forced the hands of both parties, putting perhaps a little more pressure on Jerusalem.
Now we must look forward. Financial compensation will be the first item on the agenda. Turkey has lost no time in appointing Foreign Ministry Director General Feridun Sinirlioglu (an architect of the apology and a former Turkish ambassador to Israel) to head the team to negotiate compensation for the families of the Turks who were killed in the Mavi Marmara incident on May 31, 2010.
Israel will be making a big mistake if it appoints a tough-negotiating lawyer close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head the Israeli negotiating team. Instead, Israel should appoint Foreign Ministry Director General Rafael Barak and begin the contacts in a businesslike manner with the emphasis on diplomatic thinking. Finance Minister Yair Lapid will sign the check, increasing Israel’s deficit on the eve of tough economic measures. The talks over compensation for the families must not be allowed to drag on and probe all the scars of the Mavi Marmara incident.
The next step must be the appointment of ambassadors. Both foreign ministries have top-notch, experienced ambassadors. Ankara and Jerusalem must choose envoys among the top five in their diplomatic arsenals. Turkey's diplomatic service does not have a tradition of political appointments, and Israel must eschew a political option when it appoints its ambassador. Since issues of prestige and ego among the leaders of both countries have done enough damage, professional, experienced and courageous diplomats must be appointed with backgrounds in covert and overt diplomacy.
At this point, Israel’s ambassador in Ankara will be the voice and face of Israel in the Muslim world, while Turkey’s ambassador to Israel must re-market one of the most hated figures in Israel and perhaps the whole Jewish world: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish ambassador must also present to Israelis the new demo-Islamic Republic of Turkey, which, since its establishment in November 2002, has never been properly understood in Israel.
After the appointment of the diplomats, the next step is political dialogue. Where should this dialogue begin? Like Obama, the Turks will be drawn to the Palestinian issue, while, like Netanyahu, Israel will pull strongly at the Iranian issue, and perhaps the Syrian question.The Turkish-Israeli relationship will naturally be influenced by developments in the broader regional dialogue. Turkey will press hard for an end of the Gaza blockade. Hamas is the younger and favored sister of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
The Turks will also want to include Hamas in the talks with Israel and may even suggest themselves as mediators. They may even propose that we follow the example of the Turkish-Kurdish talks. They may even propose that we start talks with Marwan Barghouti, the top Fatah leader imprisoned in Israel, just as they have started talks with rebel leader and head of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently in a Turkish prison.
Israel will reject these suggestions – and might even be impolite in doing so. Erdogan still has a long way to go to earn the trust of Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Thus, the Turks will request Israeli goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians and a speedy return to serious talks; Israel will explain that it is ready to sit at the negotiating table immediately but that there is no partner. The Turks will agree that there is no partner but will point a finger at Jerusalem. In short, not much success can be expected here.
When it's Israel’s turn to choose a topic for talks, it will choose Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Israel will try to make the Turks sense the danger of the Iranian threat. This will be a wasted effort. Turkey is not really afraid of a nuclear Iran. Although Ankara does fear a terrorist, fundamentalist Iran, it does not feel threatened by the possibility that Iran will have nuclear weapons; it even believes the Iranians when they say they are not working on such a program.
Israel will be unable to recruit Turkey on this issue or receive (even covert) authorization to use Turkish air space in the event of an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Here as well, the prospects for success are limited.
The discussion will then move on to Syria. Israel will explain the dangers of the chemical weapons that are perhaps no longer securely held in Syrian army arsenals. The Turks will try to convince Israel that Syrian President Bashar Assad is a threat to his country and the entire Middle East. Israel will be disappointed when it discovers that, on this issue as well, the Turks are not thrilled about the prospect of Israeli attacks on Syrian chemical installations.
Nor will the Turks be enthusiastic about Israeli participation in providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, even though this issue is a major expense for the Turkish treasury. The Turks will demand help in toppling Assad and Israel will decline, arguing that it is not interested in, or capable of, interfering in the Syrian civil war. On this this issue, therefore, there will be only partial success.
The natural gas in the Mediterranean will be the next subject. The Turks will ask Israel to stop its negotiations with Cyprus and cancel its understandings and agreements. In return, Israel will demand meaningful compensation and Turkey will reply that it is willing to buy all the natural gas that Israel discovers in the Mediterranean. Israel will reply that it needs that gas for its own use, and that exporting gas will be worth it only if the Israeli quantities are combined with what Cyprus has already discovered. Turkey will explain that it has no diplomatic relations with the Greek Cypriot government. Here as well, a dead end is possible.
In short, given all these conflicting interests, only expert negotiators with a broad vision can find the niches to produce a breakthrough. Without such a breakthrough, Israel will not witness a dramatic change in its relationship with Ankara. The United States must be involved. The bridesmaid must closely accompany the couple to the altar and remain with them until at least the birth of the first child.
Dr. Alon Liel, who teaches at Tel Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, is the author of “Demo Islam: Islamic Democracy in Turkey” (in Hebrew). A former director general of the Foreign Ministry, he is a former head of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Ankara.