As President Obama wrapped up his recent visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Netanyahu claimed that it was the deteriorating situation in Syria and the need to communicate with Turkey that convinced him to apologize to Erdogan for the “operational mistakes” Israeli forces committed in commandeering the Mavi Marmara in 2010. The raid on the ship trying to break Israel’s control over access to the Gaza Strip had resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. Following the botched raid, relations between the two, some of the most important U.S. allies in the Middle East, went into a tailspin.
The apology was as dramatic as the events that led to it: Netanyahu called Erdogan from an airport tarmac as President Obama looked on. U.S., Israeli and Turkish diplomats had been working on resolving the impasse for months and had even come close to a deal before, only to be derailed by domestic political calculations. So the Syrian crisis had little to do with the Israeli apology.
The bungled raid had come after a period of deterioration between Israel and Turkey. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January 2009 had infuriated the Turks, who had been attempting to bring Israelis and Syrians to the negotiating table. Vitriolic anti-Israeli rhetoric from Turkish leaders on an almost daily basis had further soured relations. A Turkish nongovernmental organization, with the connivance of members of the ruling Justice and Development Party, set sail with the explicit purpose of challenging Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Turks eventually kicked the Israeli ambassador out of Ankara, downgraded relations and insisted on three conditions for a return to normalcy: an apology, compensation and the lifting of Israel’s Gaza embargo. As everyone knew, the last condition was something Israel could never accept, lest it allow another state to dictate its own security policies. Moreover, the Turks (and Erdogan in particular) escalated the war of words to new heights as he threatened Israel militarily for seeking to develop the rich hydrocarbon deposits in its own exclusive economic zone in the Eastern Mediterranean. It seemed at times that an accidental firefight between the two militaries was only a matter of time.
Only a couple of weeks before the deal was put together by President Obama, Erdogan shocked many by declaring Zionism to be a crime against humanity, right alongside fascism and anti-Semitism. Israelis, for their part, abandoned Turkey, once a favored tourist destination, in droves. They deepened their relations with both Cyprus and Greece, traditional Turkish adversaries. The Israelis also stopped some arms deliveries: they could no longer trust the Turks to keep their technologies from falling into hostile hands (meaning Iran).
With things going so poorly, why the sudden change? The fact of the matter is that the Israel (and the United States) discovered that there were severe costs to Turkey’s recalcitrant behavior in international fora. The adversarial nature of relations was damaging the workings of other institutions, such as NATO, as well as intelligence-sharing and even missile-defense efforts.
As a result, Washington’s ability to work in the region was severely curtailed. Israel was cut out of certain NATO operations as Turkey, a member country, vetoed Israeli participation at every turn. Turks promised to harass Israeli officers and soldiers involved in the Mavi Marmara raid in international legal venues. This, in effect, was more than a nuisance. Israel, already isolated in its region, found that losing Turkey—a country with which it had built a strong relationship and whose fortunes were on the rise—was more damaging psychologically than materially. There were also other costs some that are less obvious, including the need to expand precious resources, including intelligence, to track and assess potentially hostile Turkish behavior.
Unlike Netanyahu, Erdogan had little incentive to change his rhetoric: his anti-Israeli stand played very well at home and in the larger region, and he skillfully used it to burnish his image at the expense of the Israelis. But ironically, his rhetoric became a double-edged sword. The more reckless he became with it, the more credibility he lost in the West. Turkish leaders seem incapable of understanding that while many in the West may be extremely frustrated with Israeli policy, the burden of history limits and shapes the nature of their discourse on the subject.
The Obama administration tried very hard to manage this difficult set of relations between its two allies by simply compartmentalizing its approach to them. The U.S. Jewish lobby had also taken a back seat even if individual members of Congress expressed their dismay at Erdogan’s rhetoric. And his recent characterization of Zionism may have put him on the defensive just as he was seeking to visit the United States, with his latest outburst making that trip difficult if not impossible.
Finally, many Turks are convinced that Israel stands in the way of an U.S. military operation against Syria. Whether this is true is really immaterial. Such a venture would probably be difficult to mount without the full support and mutual cooperation of both countries—with which Washington has deep military ties—especially if their respective militaries are eyeing each other suspiciously in the waters off the Syrian coast.
Netanyahu’s call was helped by the fact that the Israeli elections were concluded and the prime minister had formed a government whose majority is in favor of closing this chapter. Second, the Obama visit provided the perfect shield for Netanyahu. While one can imagine some background noise—“Obama made me do it”—the fact remains that the visit was an important event and the significance of the apology could be packaged into the public relations frenzy associated with it.
Credit must also be given to the Obama administration for persevering with this project and coming up with language that was in the end acceptable to both sides. The Israelis apologized, but that was for operational mistakes in the raid and not the raid itself. They had already eased many of the restrictions on Gaza and hence could point to those without lifting the embargo. The Turks could claim, as they did, that they managed to force the Israelis do exactly what they wanted.
How will this change the immediate relations? One should not expect a sea change anytime soon. There has been much bruising of egos on both sides; trust has disappeared and it will take a great deal of time for relations to be fully repaired. But the aspect of the rift that created such a nuisance for security coordination will be gone—and that is a great step forward.
And what about Syria? As suggested above, Netanyahu’s Syria excuse lacks sincerity. Yet, there is no question that Syria will be affected by this decision on two levels. As suggested above, if the United States and its allies were to decide on a military intervention of any sort in Syria, the Turkish-Israeli re-rapprochement would certainly facilitate matters, though it would be an exaggeration to view it as decisive.
Meanwhile, the Syrian leadership may perceive the Israeli-Turkish thaw as a Western attempt to increase pressure on Damascus. In 1998, when the Turks threatened to intervene—never mind that this was mostly a bluff—most Arab countries were convinced that the Turks were working with their then-close allies, the Israelis. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had engaged in a furious set of regional diplomatic efforts to avert hostilities. The Turks were trying to get the Syrians to kick out their nemesis, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party Abdullah Öcalan, from Syria. The threats worked then because Syrian president Hafez al-Assad did not want to risk a confrontation with both neighbors. Even if such a conflict is unlikely now, as it was then, threats remain in the eyes of the beholder.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/AteshCommons. CC BY-SA 3.0.