Amid the Suicide Bombs, Turkey's Desperate Need to Reconcile With Israel

The ruling AKP party, used to sanctioning extreme anti-Israeli rhetoric and even blatant anti-Semitism, has condemned the anti-Israeli hate tweet of a party activist after the Istanbul bombing. It's is a sign of how actively Turkey is now courting Israel.

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People light candles at the site of a blast on Istiklal Street in central Istanbul on March 19, 2016.
People light candles at the site of a blast on Istiklal Street in central Istanbul on March 19, 2016.Credit: AFP
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

Saturday morning, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Istiklal, Istanbul’s main pedestrian avenue. An Israeli group on a culinary tour of the city took the main force of the explosion, in what appears to be a random act directed at tourists, and not specifically at them as Israelis. Three Israeli citizens were killed and eleven injured, in addition to an Iranian who succumbed to fatal injuries; a Turkish family, including a two year old toddler and her father, were hospitalized in serious condition. 

This is the fourth bomb to go off in Turkey in the last two months which cumulatively have killed over 80 people. Two bombs have hit tourists in Istanbul, with those attacks believed linked to ISIS sympathizers, and the two recent Ankara bombings directed at Turkish citizens were claimed by TAK, a militant Kurdish organization, an offshoot of the outlawed PKK, whose most recent bombing happened just a week ago killing 37 people. Last October, an ISIS sympathizer killed over a hundred people at a leftist pro-peace rally in Ankara as well.  

Saturday's bombing sadly did not come as a surprise: The American and German embassies had issued warnings, with many Turkish citizens themselves avoiding Istiklal for fear of an imminent attack. 

Immediately following the attack on Saturday, Turkey’s social media was saturated with misinformation, including claims that another bomb had been detonated in Istanbul’s upscale neighborhood of Nisantasi. Very soon rumors began to emerge that among the injured was a group of Israelis. At first, this seemed far-fetched, since even before the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident and the breakdown of Israeli-Turkish relations, Israeli groups and tourists are rarely seen in Istanbul outside of its airport, which serves as a major hub onwards for Israeli travelers. 

Upon hearing that Israelis were among the injured, Irem Aktas, a low-ranking member of AKP who headed one of Istanbul’s AKP women’s branches and a declared Erdogan fan, tweeted that she wished death upon the Israelis injured. The hateful tweet took off like wildfire, retweeted by Turks disgusted by her words, and migrating quickly to the international press; not surprisingly, her sentiments received some praise as well. 

However, unlike past incidents, when extreme anti-Israeli rhetoric, often bleeding into blatant anti-Semitism, has not only been sanctioned but at times even coopted by AKP government officials and their zealous supporters, this time – commendably - party officials came out strongly against Aktas. She now faces disciplinary action and possible dismissal from the party

This move by the AKP comes at a time when Turkey and Israel have been putting serious efforts at renewing ties. Last January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who until recently never missed an opportunity to publically disgrace Israel, shocked many when he stated that it is not just Israel that needs Turkey but “we also need Israel.” In fact, during the last few months Turkey has made numerous statements that makes it appears almost as if it is courting Israel. 

Turkey’s reconciliation with Israel has more to do with geopolitics than a new found love for the Jewish state. Since relations between the two countries went sour, Turkey has lost most of its regional clout. This is true in Syria where it has lost a great deal of its influence and, following the downing of the Russian jet last October, a new need for natural gas arose, which Israel is able to answer. Lastly, Turkey’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia—an unspoken ally of Israel—also came at a cost, while its relations with Egypt are still strained.    

Domestically, as a diversion from clamping down on opposition voices and the seizing of media outlets, cutting a deal with Israel would give it much needed credit with Washington. This is of the utmost importance now also due to Turkey’s renewed war in its own backyard, as it takes on the PKK in the southeastern Kurdish populated regions, which has led to flagrant human rights violations and death of innocent civilians (with hundreds of dead among Turkey's own forces). 

Last night, during a press briefing related to the bombing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked about the talks between Turkey and Israel. He took a very diplomatic stance, stating “We have encountered some delays in this process, not from a lack of trying but due to fundamental issues,” and that the goal was to reach “normalization.” Netanyahu also commented on Aktas’ tweet, calling it “outrageous,” and stating that he received assurances that action would be taken against her.

Even if the major stumbling block standing in the way of Turkish-Israeli reconciliation seems to relate to the Gaza blockade, it could also be a key to the solution. Israel isn't budging on Turkey’s demand to lift the blockade, but it might be leaning towards a partial lifting to satisfy Turkish demands, and in return Israel could plausibly demand guarantees that the Turkish government stop using Israel as its public punching bag and take steps at combatting anti-Semitism within its ranks. In that sense, perhaps Saturday’s bombing could be a turning point in relations.  

An agreement would also allow Turkey, if it really was interested, to invest in the West Bank and Gaza, and to begin to take real steps at making Palestinian lives better in place of the usual empty rhetoric. Nevertheless, the bombing once again highlights the fact that it is actually Turkey that now is in desperate need of renewed relations with Israel, while Israel has time on its side, knowing that in the current situation in Turkey, relations between the two countries only can remain limited in scope, or at least until some stability returns. 

For now, unfortunately, any hope for Israeli tourism to Turkey as a step towards normalization will have to be put on hold as well, not least due to the Israel foreign ministry's travel advisory warning against travel to Turkey. Sadly, the Israeli group who set out Saturday to discover Turkish culture and food became a part of a dangerous sequence of violence in a country over its head in grave issues that leaves no one untouched.  

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv 

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