Israel and Turkey's Rocky Road Back to Diplomacy

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Flickr/Cancillería del Ecuador.

Normalization was anything but straightforward.

On July 20, 2016 after more than six years of dispute, the Turkish Parliament voted on the expectation of a reconciliation agreement with Israel. The agreement that was signed on June 28, 2016 in Rome has major importance to the Obama administration after its attempts at mediating between the parties in order to strengthen moderate actors in the Middle East.

After the recent failed military coup in Turkey, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that “Israel and Turkey agreed on reconciliation, and we assume that this process will continue regardless of events over the weekend.” Netanyahu had previously said that “Israel and Turkey are two major powers in the region and the break between us is not good for our vital interests and prevents us from cooperating in those instances, and there are more than a few, in which cooperation is warranted.” On July 18, the Turkish administration clarified that despite the military coup attempt, Turkey intends to continue the reconciliation process with Israel and to apply the signed agreement.

The main points of the agreement include the renewal of international diplomatic relations that were cut in the aftermath of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, and a major economic cooperation agreement based on Israel’s recently discovered natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel will also transfer a $20 million one-time payment to a Turkish humanitarian fund, to compensate the families of the Turkish citizens who died during the raid. Turkey, in turn, will withdraw its nine-year-old demand to lift the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip—in place since June 2007—and will revoke all of the prosecutions being held in Istanbul against Israel Defense Forces officers.

Referring to the agreement, Netanyahu asserted that:

“As Prime Minister of Israel, it is my responsibility to be concerned with its strategic interests, to take a broad and long-term view, based on an understanding of the international arena as well as of our security and economic needs, at present and in the future. . . . The world and the Middle East are in turmoil and my policy is to create centers of stability in this unstable and stormy region. . . . We are doing so with our close neighbors, Arab countries. We are doing so with Greece and Cyprus. We are doing so with Russia. We are also doing so with Turkey.”

During the late 1990s Israel and Turkey developed a special international relationship. The two states had close economic and security ties, and even what can be defined as a regional strategic alliance. In the mid-2000s, this special relationship deteriorated, due to Turkish disappointment in the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the rise in political power of then Turkish prime minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the 2006 Lebanon War and, most importantly, the 2008–09 Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead).

On May 22, 2010 a six-ship flotilla sailed from the coast of Istanbul toward the Gaza Strip. The flotilla was led by the Turkish IHH organization under the flag of the “Free Gaza Movement.” The flagship was Mavi Marmara V, with about six hundred activists on board. Nine days after the flotilla set sail, on May 31, the Israeli Navy intercepted the ships about eighty kilometers from Israeli shores. The violent confrontation between the Israeli Navy and approximately forty IHH members and other activists lasted less than an hour. During the clashes, nine Turkish citizens were killed and twenty others were wounded. One of the injured died in a Turkish hospital in 2014.

Israel endured heavy international criticism for this. A number of national and international investigation committees have criticized Israel’s conduct and eventually prompted Israel to reduce the intensity of its blockade on the Gaza Strip, even though it undermined the political goal of the flotilla raid. In early September 2011, a balanced report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry (the “Palmer Report”) found that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza was legal according to international law; that the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly of the IHH, were seriously questionable; that the degree of force used by the Israeli Navy forces against the Marmara was “excessive and unreasonable”; and, finally, that Israel violated some international human-rights laws during its treatment of the flotilla’s detained crew members.

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