Late last month, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called to apologize to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the death of Turkish citizens during a military operation against the ship Mavi Marmara in 2010. The call came within a day of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Öcalan’s declaration of truce and call for “the guns [to] be silenced and politics dominate.”
These two developments are clearly independent of each other. But they point to the possibility of a very different Middle East, one that breaks with the violent conflicts that are spreading across the region, including in Syria, Gaza, Egypt and Iran. One striking common denominator in all these persistent conflicts is the absence of negotiations, let alone negotiated settlements. It is against the background of such a picture that Netanyahu’s apology and Öcalan’s truce acquire significance—and may raise the prospect of an alternative Middle East where conflicting parties become capable again of talking to each other to resolve their differences.
Öcalan’s March 21 announcement came after long months of partly secret negotiations. It promises to transform the long-standing Kurdish problem in Turkey from a stalemate marked by intermittent bouts of violence to a political negotiation.
The violence surrounding the Kurdish question in Turkey has taken more than forty thousand lives since 1984 and has prevented the Kurdish-populated parts of Turkey from participating in its decade-long economic growth. The government’s efforts to suppress Kurdish nationalist manifestations by undermining freedom of expression and association have also raised questions about the quality of Turkish democracy. This in turn has tarnished Turkey’s image as a model for the transformation of the post–Arab Spring world. The emergence of an autonomous Kurdish area in the northeastern corner of Syria dominated by a group with close ties to Öcalan’s PKK has also created an additional security challenge for Turkey, compounded by Turkey's rivalry with Iran over Syria's future.
This picture of deadlock and stalemate over the Kurdish question in Turkey may dramatically change. Öcalan—a convicted terrorist—had long been ignored by the Turkish government and society. The announcement by Öcalan and the support given to this development by the Turkish government amounts to a "paradigm shift," according to a prominent Turkish columnist and expert on the Kurdish question, Cengiz Çandar.
The reforms introduced in the first half of the 2000s granting cultural rights were primarily adopted to meet the European Union’s conditions for starting accession negotiations and did not actively involve representatives of Kurdish political aspirations, let alone Öcalan. The significance of the shift lies in the Turkish government's clear recognition that Öcalan and the Kurds he represents are legitimate partners in the process of resolving the Kurdish problem. The fact that the timing of this announcement coincided with Newroz, the celebration of the spring as a symbol for a new beginning, is important for both sides.
Netanyahu’s apology may seem to have come as a surprise. But the issue itself had long been on the agenda of Israel, Turkey and the United States as a part of their triangular relationship. The Obama administration made repeated behind the scenes efforts to reconcile both sides. Those efforts all fell victim to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his hawkish minister of foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, as well as Erdogan's harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric. Most recently, just before Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Turkey, Erdogan had equated Zionism with racism and called it a crime against humanity, provoking rebukes from the U.S. and Israel.
Yet throughout the three years of tension, both sides managed to leave room for gestures of reconciliation and pragmatism and managed to avoid escalating their differences to the point of breaking relations. In 2010, Erdogan did not hesitate to dispatch airborne firefighters to help Israel extinguish a major forest fire on Mount Carmel. Netanyahu reciprocated the gesture in October 2011 when the heavily Kurdish city of Van was hit by a destructive earthquake.
The pragmatism was reflected in keeping a free-trade agreement—in place since 1996—untouched even as many of the military agreements were discontinued. In spite of the deterioration in diplomatic relations and plummeting Israeli tourism, trade between the two countries continued to grow after the 2010 crisis at a rate even higher than between Turkey and the EU.
The new challenge will be recreating the positive climate that had existed in Israeli-Turkish relations before the crisis. This climate had enabled Turkey to play a mediating role, with concrete results between Israel and Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Erdogan had also used his good offices to promote indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which had come close to being upgraded to direct talks before they collapsed. Erdogan, provoked by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, had excoriated Israel's leaders.
The Middle East clearly needs a return to a climate of negotiations. But it’s too early to say whether Israeli-Turkish relations can be revived to the point where Erdogan would again host an Israeli prime minister for a five-hour dinner at his residence. In the words of a Turkish diplomat, the apology will at least scatter away the dark clouds over Israeli-Turkish relations, opening the way for a further growth of economic relations between Israel and Turkey. Businessmen in Turkey had long been discreetly grumbling about the political climate that was preventing economic relations from reaching their full potential.
Cooperation at the political level may come more slowly if not much progress is achieved on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Nevertheless, avenues that might open up with this apology might have positive implications, especially for Egypt, where it could strengthen the hand of pragmatists among the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. Much more importantly, the apology will surely open the way to closer cooperation between the United States and Turkey, which might change the equation in Syria and other regional problems.
A word of caution is also needed. As much as both Netanyahu’s apology and Öcalan’s declaration can be welcomed, the leaders face tough challenges within their constituencies. Erdogan’s supporters will be sensitive towards what happens to the Palestinians. If settlement activity in the West Bank continues and rockets from Gaza provoke an Israeli response, will Erdogan be able to refrain from using flamboyant rhetoric against Israel again? Will Öcalan be able to control the PKK and especially radical elements within it? Will Erdogan and the Turkish political system be able to sustain a political process that would have to reconsider the core values of the Turkish republic and of Turkish national identity?
These are tough questions that demand a strong dose of realism. But in the midst of the violence, instability and conflicts that have engulfed the Middle East, Israelis, Kurds and Turks have found a way to give politics a chance. As Winston Churchill famously noted, "It's better to jaw-jaw than war-war."
Kemal Kirisci is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.