Time for an Overture to Turkey

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The weeks following Israel's election campaign were good for Israeli -Turkish relations, and February 2013 has turned out to be the best month in years for this crucial regional nexus. During the course of the month the media in both countries were flooded with positive reports about cooperation between Israel and Turkey, climaxing in the news that - for the first time since the events of the Mavi Marmara flotilla - Israel has provided Turkey with military equipment,  advanced electronic combat systems that significantly upgrade the abilities of the Turkish air force's early warning planes. In addition, it was reported that Israel agreed to transfer Turkish humanitarian aid  to the Gaza Strip, that the two countries are discussing a plan to build an undersea gas pipeline between them, and that Turkey has agreed to cooperate with Israel in the extradition from Turkey to Israel  of a man accused of trafficking in women. All this in the course of a single week.

A similar uptick took place, on a smaller scale, immediately after the general election in Turkey in June 2011. At the time, the Turkish government decided to block an attempt by the IHH, the Turkish humanitarian relief organization, to send another flotilla to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a personal letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, congratulating him on his victory and expressing hope for a renewal of friendship and cooperation between the two countries. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon hosted a delegation of Turkish journalists and, in a self-deprecating act of contrition, following an earlier row when he humiliated a Turkish diplomat, even had his picture taken seated on a low chair.

In 2011 this positive dynamic, which took place with the active encouragement of the United States, led to a draft agreement to repair relations, which was signed by representatives of the two countries at the conclusion of secret negotiations. The agreement, which provided a solution to the most critical Israeli needs surrounding the flotilla incident and was supported by most of Israel's state establishment, was rejected in the end by Netanyahu. As a result there was an additional rift in relations between the countries, which reached an unusual nadir – a reduction in the level of diplomatic representation, belligerent and threatening Turkish declarations, and a trial in Turkey  for senior Israel Defense Force officers.

And now, over a year later, after it seemed that the opportunity to repair relations with Turkey had passed by, just such a chance has reappeared, following the Knesset elections. This time it is the conclusion of a longer process, which developed over the past six months. Already by summer 2012 an opinion poll indicated that the Israeli public supported reinstating relations with Turkey, even at the price of an apology for the flotilla events. Declarations by Israeli officials led Turkey to believe that Israel no longer rejected the idea of an apology. Netanyahu also spoke on several occasions about the importance of relations with Turkey, and even sent a Jewish businessman to Erdogan as an intermediary. Negotiations between the two countries were renewed in November 2012, a few days before Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip.

And even the operation in Gaza, which could have been expected to present additional challenges to the already problematic Israeli-Turkish relationship, turned into a lever for improving relations. During the Gaza campaign not only was an increase in the number of flights between the countries reported, but a channel of communication was created between the chief of the Mossad and his Turkish counterpart, who met in Cairo as part of the efforts to bring about a cease fire. Such channels had been blocked, on Erdogan's orders, for a long period. And now they have reopened, and are even receiving media coverage in both countries. The situation has changed completely in the space of a year.

Regional developments are repeatedly demonstrating to Israel and Turkey how much they have to gain from mending their relationship. The events in Syria are undoubtedly serving as an important spur, mainly in strategic terms. Turkey also has an economic interest now that its alliance with Syria has come to an end. Israel now realizes that improving relations with Turkey is of national importance, even if this is not a return to the past alliance between the countries and even if serious differences of opinion remain surrounding the Palestinian issue. A renewal of full diplomatic relations and of the strategic dialogue is of great value. It may not be a love story, but it's definitely an asset in a changing and uncertain environment

The political circumstances have also changed significantly. If in 2011 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reluctant to sign the agreement with Turkey for political and electoral reasons, the current Israeli political reality facilitates such a step. Netanyahu has received a renewed vote of confidencw; former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was vehemently opposed  to an agreement with Turkey, is not in the Foreign Minister's office at present, and several of Netanyahu's potential coalition partners – Yesh Atid, Labor, Hatnuah and Kadima – have already expressed their support for renewed relations.

In recent months Israel has been gifted a second chance for rehabilitating its relationship with Turkey. The new Israeli government must address it as one of the first diplomatic objectives on its agenda, express a willingness to apologize for the operational hitches  that took place during the IDF takeover of the flotilla (the version agreed on in 2011), and examine the seriousness of Turkish intentions. This will convey a message of diplomatic moderation and of having learned lessons from the previous term, when the Israeli government busied itself in a vain attempt to escape from events in the Middle East.

It is clear that Israel is gradually learning to accept the consequences of the Arab Spring, as evidenced by the relationship being formed with President Mohammed Morsi's Egypt. A rehabilitation of relations with Turkey, and a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians, are the real entry tickets for returning to the neighborhood. We must not miss our second chance. Once there is political will, if we need a little help from our friends, then the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to the region could be the step that enables Jerusalem and Ankara to embark on a new path.

Dr. Nimrod Goren is Founder and Chairmanof Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies; he is also an Adjunct Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Illustration: TurkeyCredit: AP

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