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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the Mavi Marmara incident, and Ankara’s acceptance of the apology, have paved the way for restoring bilateral relations. Our experts assess what should happen next to cement the reconciliation.
Ian LesserExecutive director of the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
The first question about the recent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement should be: “Is it real?”
The future of Turkish-Israeli relations is still uncertain, with many potential pitfalls. First, Israel’s stance on Gaza could remain a sticking point. Second, the past few years have seen a substantial deterioration of trust on all sides, which is unlikely to be fully repaired anytime soon. Third, the conditions that gave rise to the “strategic relationship” between Turkey and Israel in the late 1990s have changed substantially.
There is now little sense of mutual affinity, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clearly maintains very negative attitudes toward Israeli policy, if not toward Israel itself.
There may be no going back to the golden age of Turkish-Israeli cooperation, but the relationship can be put on a more sustainable and predictable footing, with practical collaboration in areas of shared interest—and there are many. Defense industrial cooperation is one; containment of Iran is another.
The substantial offshore gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean also offer a new and potentially transformative sphere for cooperation—a critical stake that did not exist in earlier phases of Turkish-Israeli relations. A gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey would enhance the prospects for commercial exploitation of these resources.
And if there were a settlement on the division of Cyprus, there may be scope for a wider network of energy cooperation. That would contribute toward the island’s economic recovery, Europe’s energy security, and the region’s political stability.
Hugh PopeProject director for Turkey/Cyprus at International Crisis Group
Israel’s apology, and Turkey’s acceptance of it, puts an important relationship back on a more sensible footing. The United States will be relieved that two of its most important regional allies are back on speaking terms; businesses who have kept trade figures buoyant despite the diplomatic spat will feel bolder; and Israeli natural gas promoters may be more enthusiastic about a pipeline to Turkey. But it is not yet the dawn of a new Middle Eastern era.
Israel would do well to remember that Turkish policy toward it is not indexed to either U.S. pressure or any Turkish leader’s personal leanings. Rather, the main factor is Turkish public opinion of whether Israel is ready to make peace with the Palestinians.
Successive Turkish governments took exception to the six-day war of 1967, the 1973 war, the 1980 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital, and the 2002 attacks on West Bank cities. It was only after Israel engaged in the Middle East peace process in the early 1990s that Turkey sent its first ambassador to Israel; and it was only after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 that Erdoğan first visited the Jewish state.
Both sides should work to exchange ambassadors soon. Turkish leaders should refrain from rhetorical attacks on Israel and any triumphalism that the usually unapologetic Israel has said sorry.
Instead, Ankara should use this turning of a new page as an opportunity to return to a more neutral posture in the region. Turkey should remember that its ability to talk to Israel was one of the most valuable elements in the country’s battered “zero problems” policy.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
The thaw in relations between Israel and Turkey was a rare piece of good news from the Mediterranean. From Syria to Cyprus, from Italy to North Africa, there is a long list of grievances. U.S. President Barack Obama’s success in rekindling this former friendship was therefore a welcome achievement.
The world is paying scant attention to the “Old Middle East,” focusing instead on other regions and issues, ranging from China and North Korea to the eurozone crisis and the global economy.
It would be great to get all the G20 leaders together for a screening of The Gatekeepers, a documentary movie that tells the story of Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, from the perspective of six of its former heads. All six agree that tensions in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank cannot be contained forever. Eventually, the strains will become too great, causing an explosive situation.
The former Shin Bet chiefs are no doves or peaceniks: their knowledge of security issues is second to none. They concluded, after many years of intelligence, that war and repression cannot continue in the long run.
So the Turkish-Israeli truce is a terrific step in the right direction, but many more such steps are needed. Stabilizing Syria—a colossal task—should be next. After that comes freezing (not solving) the Iranian nuclear dossier. The West has only a few months to act.
Shimon SteinInternational consultant and former Israeli ambassador to Germany
It took a visit by a U.S. president to persuade the Israeli prime minister to do something that was long overdue: to apologize for the unfortunate loss of life during the attempt by the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The additional steps that will complement the apology will help to pave the way for normalizing relations. That said, it is doubtful whether the apology will be sufficient to fully restore the relationship, which saw its zenith during the latter part of the 1990s. Ever since Turkey’s Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, relations have cooled, reaching their nadir after the tragic Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010.
Where do we go from here? A closer look at the two countries’ political and security agendas reveals key differences on the Israeli-Palestinian question, the Iranian nuclear crisis, and the Syrian conflict, to name just three pressing issues.
A professional political and military dialogue is urgently needed to assess how to cooperate on issues of mutual concern. Restoring military cooperation, removing obstacles to Israel’s NATO involvement, and—last but not least—refraining from populist statements will help to restore confidence and trust, allowing both sides to pursue their interests.
A love affair will not ensue, but a marriage of convenience might.
Sylke TempelEditor in chief of Internationale Politik, the magazine of the German Council on Foreign Relations
Israel’s recent apology to Turkey, though clearly encouraged by U.S. President Barack Obama, is based on a strategic interest that can be summed up in one word: Syria. The Syrian civil war marks the end of Turkey’s policy of “zero problems with our neighbors.”
Turkey seems to understand that it cannot handle a failing Syria, waves of immigrants, and the growing influence of an Iranian-backed Hezbollah by itself. For Israel, Syria is a nightmare. There is no way Israel could intervene directly, but at the same time it has to ensure that weapons of mass destruction don’t fall into the wrong hands.
Neither country has much room for maneuver. The Syrian situation is less about “what can we do” than “what we shouldn’t do.” It is not about planning a common policy, but about making sure that neither Israel nor Turkey will do anything rash.
A real Turkish-Israeli rapprochement will involve sharing of intelligence on Syria (and possibly Iran). Given the mistrust on both sides, that will take a while, and not everything will be shared. But there should be enough pooling to limit the regional spillover from the Syrian conflict.
There might also be agreements on gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. In the long run, there could perhaps be a partial revival of the old, largely military partnership between Ankara and Jerusalem. Optimists might even dream of a more constructive Turkish policy on accepting a Jewish state in the region.
There is little love lost between Israel and Turkey, however. Many Middle Eastern power struggles are like nineteenth-century marriages: they aren’t based on romance and love, but on interests and necessity. They might not be very happy relationships, but they may prove to be very stable.
Nathalie TocciDeputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali
The reconciliation between Turkey and Israel presents clear benefits for both sides. For Israel, caught between an increasingly volatile region and international isolation, mending fences with Turkey has evident strategic advantages.
No wonder that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been pressing for a rapprochement for a while. The project’s political feasibility in Israel increased after the resignation of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the change in the Israeli political equation triggered by the January 2013 elections, and the final agreement on an Israeli government.
Turkey required more convincing. True, the Mavi Marmara incident had damaged Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine, nullified Turkish ambitions to act as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and raised eyebrows in Washington. But, in return, Turkey had won the approval of the “Arab Street,” while under the surface its economic ties with Israel had picked up again over the last year.
In Turkey, the political stars were finally aligned with the intertwining of the Syrian conflict (and its repercussions on the Kurdish question) and the potential gains from Turkish-Israeli cooperation over gas finds (and its impact on the Cyprus issue).
The gains for both Israel and Turkey should not be underestimated. But this is no guarantee that the reconciliation is set in stone. The Turkish-Israeli relationship has always been conditioned by the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While a specific thorn—namely, the Mavi Marmara incident—has been taken out of the side of Turkish-Israeli relations, it is unlikely that the two countries will return to the heydays of the 1990s without a genuine resumption of the Middle East peace process.
Sinan ÜlgenVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The most concrete outcome of U.S. President Obama’s recent visit to Israel was an agreement paving the way for a new chapter in Israeli-Turkish relations.
Having formed a new government, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was able to accept two of Turkey’s three conditions for normalizing the relationship. First, he apologized for the operational mistakes made by Israel’s defense forces during the Mavi Marmara incident. Second, he agreed to compensation for the victims’ families. The third condition—the lifting of the embargo on Gaza—was overcome by means of some diplomatic wording.
The question now is how instrumental the apology will be in terms of rejuvenating Turkish-Israeli cooperation. We should not raise our expectations in this regard.
The deal will not allow the two countries to return to their honeymoon period of fully-fledged cooperation. But it will have accomplished two important objectives. The first is to end the “cold war” between the two sides. This will have implications for Turkey’s policy toward Israel in multilateral forums like NATO, where Ankara will cease its obstructionism vis-à-vis Israel.
The second, more important, achievement is the opening of a more limited and possibly much less publicized level of cooperation in the area of regional security. This means we can expect more intelligence sharing and policy dialogue on regional security challenges like Syria and Iran.
Ankara can also be expected to work to contain Hamas and prevent renewed aggression against Israel. But, over the past decade, Turkey’s domestic politics have changed considerably. As a result, Ankara has become heavily critical of Israel’s policies.
The recent rapprochement will not change this fact, and managing the Turkey-Israel relationship will need to take full account of this obstacle.