The renewal of ties between Turkey and Israel marks a major turning point in this history of their bilateral relations, frozen since the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which nine Turkish citizens died. Since then, Turkey has demanded an official apology from Israel (that came at President Obama’s urging in 2013), and financial compensation to be given to the families of the victims.
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However, the major stumbling block was Turkey’s demand that Israel lift the Gaza blockade, something that Israel insisted was unacceptable, as it was an issue directly related to its security.
For the last six months Turkey and Israel have worked on reaching a compromise concerning Gaza. Turkey has received guarantees that it will be able to supply humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and in addition it will also be able to build a hospital, supply much needed electricity and clean water to the Strip, in addition to other steps aimed at improving the lives of Palestinians there.
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While Turkey’s achievements are impressive, Turkey’s acceptance of Israeli monitoring of these goods and services is an achievement for Israel, since it essentially is de facto recognition of the Gaza blockade itself, and something Israel has offered in one way or another since the crisis broke out. Israel received assurances that Hamas would not act against Israel from Turkish territory, allowing Turkey to save face as well, by not having to expel them. Importantly, it also received assurances that IDF soldiers who participated in the Flotilla Raid will be free from criminal charges in Turkish courts.
Putting aside the details of the agreement, the real story however is how Israel was able to transform the international crisis it found itself in following the raid into a diplomatic victory. It’s one that should be fully credited to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Essentially, this agreement has the potential to create a new regional reality, advancing relations not based on the glory of the once strong Turkish-Israeli military alliance of the 1990s, but a new paradigm in sync with an understanding of Turkey’s current political situation.
Turkey’s political Islamist: Disdain for Israel – and Jews
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, its influential leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always treated his country’s relations with Israel with disdain. This view was tied not only to his party’s staunchly anti-Israel past, often tainted with blatant anti-Semitism, but was rooted in internal Turkish politics.
During the 1990s, criticism of Turkey’s alliance with Israel was to a great extent taboo. In fact, one of the events that hastened the 1997 military coup, which led to the resignation of Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, was when Turkish military tanks rolled into the Ankara neighborhood of Sincan where an Islamist evening of solidarity with Palestine, the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Night, was taking place; the mayor, among others, was arrested.
However, even after the coup, the secular establishment continued to weed out Islamists from the system. In 1999, Erdogan, who was then Istanbul’s influential young mayor and a member of Erbakan’s party, served a four-month prison term for the public reading of a poem deemed anti-government and was suspended from politics.
Few could imagine that the same jailed politician just five years later would lead the country on a new revolution (much to the dismay of his opponents who in the last few years are experiencing increasingly oppressive measures) Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan succeeded in ending the days of military tutelage and continues to transform the country into what he defines as the “New Turkey.”
During the first years of power, he did give Israel a grace period, visiting Israel in 2005, but Erdogan never paraded his relations with Israel and from 2007 onwards relations quickly deteriorated.
The Erdogan about-face on Israel
Today’s agreement is the first time that Israel has reached an agreement with the “New Turkey,” and it is Erdogan who is for the first time treating Israel as an equal partner. So, what has changed?
Why has Erdogan, the man who never missed an opportunity during the last few years to regularly berate and curse Israel at political rallies, and turned to a cheek to the blatant anti-Semitism filling the pages of Turkey’s pro-government press, suddenly changed to a leader that just last January stated, “Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region. We have to admit that we also need Israel”?
Since the days of the Gaza flotilla, Turkey has found itself more and more isolated in the Middle East. From its failed policy in Egypt, to its miscalculations in Syria, Turkey is desperate not just for friends, but also to regain some of its political clout in the Middle East. Turkey’s potential role in Gaza will bring it a step closer to reaching this goal. More importantly, Turkey’s falling out with Russia only highlighted its deep need to diversify its natural gas resources, and any deal with Israel cannot move forward domestically without dealing once and for all with the flotilla Incident.
The very fact that Erdogan has at last come to the conclusion that Turkey is in dire need with relations with Israel is what makes this agreement even more agreeable to Israel.
During the last six years, Israel waited patiently for Turkey to come around and bowed its head at regular outbursts of Turkish hate (although some Israeli politicians took the chance to reciprocate by slinging mud at their Turkish counterparts .
Public hostility, private understandings
However, Israel, like Turkey, was well aware that the public image of Turkey defying Israel stood in stark contrasts to the booming trade between the two countries over the last six years.
It continued its diplomatic work in Istanbul and Ankara, and even in the worst of days, during the 2014 Gaza War, it continued to present a public face; its Consul General even appeared on Turkish television to explain the Israeli side of the conflict.
While it is still too early to see if this new phase in relations will usher in a reformatted strategic alliance between the two countries, it is clear that Israel has succeeded in shifting its relations with Turkey’s former military secular elite on to the new political elite, which despite its historical hostility to the Jewish state is now paving the way for stronger mutual ties.
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.