Israel-Turkey Reconciliation Still Remote

The phone call between Erdogan and Netanyahu won't stop a trend of increasing tension.

In March, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called and Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan answered the phone. It was only because President Obama, about to fly out of Israel, applied pressure to both.

For almost three years, Israel declined to approve the formula worked out between Israeli and Turkish negotiators aimed at breaking the ice between the two governments. Tensions had run high since May 2010, when tens of pro-Palestinian activists tried to break through a blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza. Nine people, including eight Turkish nationals, were killed when Israeli troops raided their ship, the Mavi Marmara.

But the apology made by Netanyahu will not put an end to tensions between the two governments or avert future conflicts. Two additional Turkish conditions for restoring full diplomatic relations have to be met: compensation for the families of the Turkish citizens killed in May 2010 and an end to the blockade of Gaza. Turkey has already requested a delay for the talks on the compensation. Discussions on the blockade of Gaza—if they are ever held—may bring Turkey and Israel into a bitter disagreement over the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead.

But even if all the Turkish preconditions are met, the problems will not end and tension will increase on several different levels.

Erdogan’s Rhetoric

Some of the Turkish leader’s statements concerning Israel are considered by many to be offensive and unacceptable. His remarks in late February of this year, in which he lumped Zionism in with anti-Semitism, fascism and Islamophobia as crimes against humanity, elicited harsh criticism from the White House and the European Union. (The best response, though unintended as such, was the visit President Obama made to the Jerusalem grave of the father of Zionism—Theodor Herzl.)

In the early days of the rule of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, Erdogan was more circumspect in his criticism of Israel. In other words, so long as cooperation with Israel served his personal and national goals for Turkey, he and foreign minister Davutoglu were willing to censor themselves. Israel responded similarly by turning a blind eye to some troubling events: Iran’s use of Turkish airspace to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon; the then flourishing relations between Tehran and Ankara; and the political and financial support rendered by Turkey to Hamas in the wake of their takeover of Gaza in June 2007.

Between 2006-2009, Israel entrusted Turkey with negotiations with Syria. Turkey hosted the Israeli and Syrian negotiations and acted as a go-between in these proximity talks. This role gave the Turkish political leadership precisely the political gratification they were looking for and proof that Turkey is a key regional player. Turkey was quick to paper over the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor attributed to Israel by planes that might have violated Turkish airspace (detached fuel tanks were found on Turkish soil).

All of this came to an end, however, in the last days of 2008 and early part of 2009. In the final week of December 2008, Prime Minister Erdogan hosted his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, who had already announced his resignation. Hours after returning, Israel launched the military operation "Cast Lead," aimed at stopping the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza targeting Israeli towns and villages. Olmert could not have told his Turkish host of the impending Israeli operation, but Erdogan's fury can be similarly understood—the impression that he was informed about the Israeli operation and made no attempt to stop it could have been created. Erdogan's anger was evident when, for example, he stormed out from a session with Israel's president, Shimon Peres, in the Davos Economic Forum several weeks later. Following elections in early 2009, the new Israeli government under Netanyahu decided to suspend talks with Syria, a legitimate act but one that eliminated a Turkish political asset. This all preceded the dramatic events that occurred at sea in May 2010.

Shifting Sands

The rapidly changing geostrategic map of the Middle East contains more seeds of conflict between Turkey and Israel than before. In the 1950s and 60s, Israel built informal pacts with non-Arab peripheral players—Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia—as a partial countermeasure to it being surrounded by hostile Arab states. Israel has had peace treaties with two states–Egypt and Jordan—since 1979 and 1994, which has improved its strategic balance. Syria and Iraq are now in a process of disintegration and potential alliances could be developed among their minorities, which have been long oppressed. As central governments weaken and prove unable to exert even a semblance of control, such ethnic and religious groups are pushing for political and cultural autonomy.

The most significant of these, both demographically and territorially, are the Kurds. Relations between Israel and the Kurds of Iraq were established long ago and at the time encountered no opposition from Turkey. But circumstances have changed and a bold, proactive campaign by Israel to leverage the new regional circumstances and forge alliances with such regional forces, especially the Kurds, may clash with Turkey's strategy of containing Kurdish ambitions. This may in turn prevent the "Kurdish Spring" from spilling into Turkey's own Kurdish community.

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