Last week, in the midst of the Israeli election results, the Turkish media briefly switched its attention because of a major fire that took place at Istanbul's famous Galatasaray University campus, where a five hundred-year-old building caught ablaze, burning the architectural marvel. However, by morning time, all eyes were back on Israel, questioning if these results would lead to a government that would renew its ties with Turkey.
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During the last four years, Turkish-Israeli relations have hit their lowest point since Turkey first recognized the Jewish state in 1949. However, their relations go much further back, when the Zionist movement forged ties with Istanbul over a century ago. In fact, both Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion resided in the Ottoman capital, and the latter even studied for a short period at the previously mentioned Galatasaray school. While this long history of ties illustrates a sympathetic trend among some Turks for the Jewish community in Palestine and later State of Israel, this in no way, however, diminishes their concern for the Palestinians, which is also historically based. Therefore, for most part of the last century, Turkey has had to balance itself between its ties with the Arab world and Israel.
Following the 1991 Madrid conference, and the subsequent Oslo accords, relations between the two states warmed up quickly. While at first they remained in the realm of military ties, by the end of the 1990s these contacts started to resemble neighborly relations between two states, a more wholehearted normalization that offered Israelis a nest in the wider Middle East. The Turkish earthquake of 1999, in which Israelis also died as well as Israel providing much needed aid, showed the Turkish people a different side of Israelis, one that contradicted portraits of Israel as a cruel occupier. During the following years, academic and cultural ties strengthened, and Israeli tourists flooded Turkey, while many Turks started also to visit Israel.
In just a matter of years, Turkey went from unfurling Israeli flags at Fenerbahce football matches, while cheering the Israeli player Haim Revivo, to a whole stadium cursing Israel in unison. The rapid change began even before the rise of the conservative Justice and Development (AK) Party, and the tenure of its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, the tide changed following the rumors of a massacre in the Jenin Refugee camp in the spring of 2002, when the secular Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, accused Israel of committing genocide. It was at this moment that it became evident that Turkish-Israeli ties could not move forward if some type of stability could not be reached on the Palestinian-Israeli front.
While many like to paint the current AK party as an Islamist party, precluding ab initio any chance for Turkey to be on good terms with Israel, PM Erdogan, and President Abdullah Gul, presented Israel with somewhat of a grace period after coming to power. Moreover, even after the tensions of the Second Lebanon war, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert worked closely with Erdogan trying to reaching a peace agreement with Syria. With Operation Cast Lead, Turkish-Israeli relations quickly soured, and with the death of nine Turkish citizens on the Gaza Flotilla, few could predict how bad it could get. For almost two years now, Israel and Turkey have been without full diplomatic relations and ties have suffered greatly; nevertheless, it is important to point out that despite the situation, trade between the countries has grown and Istanbul still serves as a major international hub for Israeli travelers, with Turkish Air flying daily to Tel Aviv.
The Turkish government has remained firm in its insistence that Israel apologize for the Gaza Flotilla debacle, and to compensate the families of those killed. Some Israeli politicians have recognized the need to apologize, such as Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak; however, this condition was unacceptable for former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In fact, many Turkish citizens, including the government, place the blame on Lieberman for the quick deterioration of ties, with it even becoming apparent that as long as he was in office, ties between the two countries could not be mended. Further, the Turkish government was also aware of the fact that it was not only they who had problems with Israel (or vice-versa), but the world at large. Few can argue against the fact that Israel during the last four years has been subjected to growing international criticism, recently finding itself isolated in the United Nations vote on the recognition of Palestine as a non-member state.
The Turkish media’s focus on the Israeli elections should not go unnoticed. Undoubtedly, it was the best coverage Israel has received in years, and is a reminder of the heyday in Israeli-Turkish relations. Remarkably, the excitement was noticeable not only in mainstream newspapers and television, but also in outlets close to the ruling AK party. Furthermore, the morning after the elections, a private university, Kadir Has, held a discussion on the elections to a room filled packed with students and academics. The question on everyone’s mind was: Would a new government be formed that could bridge the gap between the two countries? And what would the implications be for the Middle East at large? Further, like many outside of Israel, there was some fascination at the turn of fortune towards television presenter-turned-politician, Yair Lapid.
The attention the Israeli elections attracted in Turkey is a clear sign that the future Israeli government needs to seize the moment, and place ties between the two countries at the top of its agenda, which can only begin with a sincere apology. Turkey, in return, will also need to start with a clean slate, and work to suspend the civil court trial of Israeli officers who took part in the Gaza Flotilla. Parallel to this, Israel needs to recognize the fact that in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, relations with Turkey are more important than ever; not to mention, the challenges facing both countries, such as the future of Syria and Iran. Lastly, with Israel’s peace with Jordan and Egypt, remaining “cold,” it is important that Israel does its utmost to saving relations with Turkey; not only does it have the chance of providing a needed normalcy, but such a relationship can also open up doors to the region at large.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. During the current year, he is in Istanbul working on his upcoming book on late Ottoman Palestine, and teaching Middle East history and politics courses at Okan and Sabanci Universities. He has lived most of his life divided between the US, Israel, and Turkey. Follow him @IstanbulTelaviv or on his blog: http://louisfishman.blogspot.com