Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 22 to apologize for the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident and move toward normalizing bilateral relations that have been in the deep freeze since June 2010. President Obama clearly played a direct role in orchestrating the call that took place as his historic first visit to Israel was ending, capping over two years of US diplomacy aimed at reconciling these two key allies whose estrangement has complicated American policy in the region. While this is a big step forward and a success for Obama personally, do not expect any sea change in the relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara, whose dynamics will for the foreseeable future remain clouded.
The assault by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara that aimed to enforce Israel's blockade of Hamas-run Gaza took the lives of nine Turks on board and ruptured a relationship that has always had ups and downs. The two countries' diplomats, bolstered by US strong-arming, attempted to patch relations via an Israeli apology. This proved impossible, evidently not so much because of unbearable conditions set by Ankara or Netanyahu's unwillingness to take a pragmatic step as the resistance of then-Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to doing so.
Rumors have circulated in Turkey and elsewhere for weeks that a deal was in the works for unveiling shortly after the new Israeli government was formed. Erdogan's February 28 remarks at an Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Vienna calling Zionism a crime against humanity looked like they might derail or at least postpone this. But with Knesset elections and the new government's formation behind him and as a gesture toward Obama in light of his highly supportive visit, Netanyahu decided to take the plunge.
Regarding the Vienna remarks, Netanyahu presumably decided to regard as satisfactory enough Erdogan's subsequent reiteration of his longstanding condemnation of anti-Semitism and support for Israel's right to exist. For his part, Erdogan's again demonstrated his deeply pragmatic approach to policy – just as he has done in recent weeks toward normalizing Turkey's long-running Kurdish problem.
Rapprochement with Israel eases a big problem in the United States, especially among members of Congress and an American Jewish community that has long supported Turkey on key issues. While a tough attitude toward Israel has given Turkey increased standing in the Arab world, Turkish leaders also recognize that the fact of their country's relationship with Israel, like its membership in NATO and close ties with the United States, helps underpin Turkey's status in the region and in the world and so deserved repair.
In the call with Erdogan, Netanyahu expressed regret, apologized for the loss of life in the Mavi Marmara incident, and offered compensation to the victims' families, according to press reports. Turkey, for its part, agreed to drop charges and end legal proceedings that began last year against the Israeli military commanders who ordered the raid. Erdogan and Netanyahu also reportedly agreed to normalize relations, though exactly what that may mean was not clear from press reports.
Netanyahu's apology and Erdogan's acceptance of it correct problem number one in Turkish-Israeli relations. Atmospherics matter greatly in both countries and to their proud peoples. Clearing the air will send calming signals to Turkish and Israeli traders, to members of Turkey's own Jewish community that always frets about its future in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, and to angry members of the US Congress, over eighty of whom expressed anguish in recent days over Erdogan's Zionism/crime against humanity remark. Returning ambassadors to each other's capitals and undoing the other retaliations each side has taken toward the other will (presuming they happen) also be beneficial.
Do not, however, expect a return to Halcyon days in Turkish-Israeli relations.
- Even while reiterating support for Israel's right to exist and the two-state solution, Erdogan felt compelled to restate his views about the immorality of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians–the kind of deeply felt and obviously important views that complicate the way Turkey is regarded in Israel and the United States.
- While both Jerusalem and Ankara oppose Iran's nuclear and other ambitions and share common interests with respect to Syria, their approaches to both sets of problems differ profoundly. It is easy to imagine events in 2013 that will gravely test the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, including possible actions against Iran, responses to the deployment and especially movements of chemical and biological weapons in Syria, and the always likely rocket fire on Israel from Gaza that may well again get out of hand.
- Resurgent Turkey now strides more assertively throughout the region in a way it did not years ago when relations with Israel were better. This almost ensures the two countries will be drawn into disagreements and political conflict with one another, with unpredictable consequences.
- Add to that the sometimes sharp tongues of Erdogan, Lieberman, and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett on matters Palestinian and the substance of two toughly contrasting stances on these issues, and it seems that real partnership between the two countries even where their interests do coincide will require a long, hard slog to develop.
One hopes that Israel and Turkey send their most skilled diplomats to one another–and soon.
Ross Wilson, director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, was US ambassador to Turkey from 2005-2008.
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