Will Turkey's Aid to Israel in Carmel Fire Revive Foundering Ties?

Turkey is still as strategically important for Israel as it ever was and it would be a major diplomatic blunder to miss the opportunity to repair ties with Ankara.

Dozens of reader comments in the Turkish press yesterday on the decision to help Israel fight the Carmel fire conveyed the same message: Israel is a friend, and Israel assisted Turkey when it was in need. In fact, these commentators wondered aloud why Turkey had only sent two planes. One 76-year-old set the tone by saying, "I'm very proud that Turkey is helping Israel; we are brothers at heart."

The question now is whether the Carmel fire, to which Turkey has sent two fire-prevention planes and which elicited condolences from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will revive relations between the two countries, which have floundered for 18 months.

erdogan netanyahu - Reuters / Hagai Frid - December 1 2010
Reuters / Hagai Frid

"Disaster diplomacy" is a concept no less familiar in international affairs than the "ping pong diplomacy" that described the thaw in U.S.-China relations or the "soccer diplomacy" that catalyzed agreements between Turkey and Armenia. In 1999, Turkey, Israel and Greece engaged in "earthquake diplomacy" after the quake that devastated Turkey; relations between Greece and Turkey improved dramatically, and Israel won accolades as Turkey's closest friend after Israeli workers built a compound for earthquake victims at breakneck speed.

Memories of the earthquake and the "humanitarian debt" Israel notched up will not fade easily. But the response is unrelated to the two countries' tense diplomatic relations. Erdogan made a point that relations between Israel and Turkey will not be fully repaired until Israel apologizes and pays compensation to the victims of the Gaza-flotilla incident.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's words seemed to hint at an Israeli intention to reconcile with the Turks. "I am sure that this incident will offer an opportunity for improved relations between our two countries," Netanyahu told Erdogan; he added that Israel will find a way to express its gratitude. No tragedy will occur should Israel express regret and apologize for the killing of Turkish civilians on the Mavi Marmara.

Because even if the peace activists harbored malicious intent, Israel could have carried out an intercept operation that would not have produced casualties. The payment of compensation to families of the Turks killed in the raid would not in itself constitute an admission of responsibility. Compensation can be seen as a humanitarian gesture.

Turkey's strategic importance for Israel was not lessened by whatever grudges lingered after the flotilla incident, and Turkey's dealings with Syria, Lebanon and Iran only underscore the importance of solid relations between Ankara and Jerusalem. It is to be regretted that we needed a terrible catastrophe for a window of opportunity to open, but it would be a major diplomatic blunder if Israel squandered this opportunity.