Commentary

Israel and Turkey Seek Rapprochement

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

Turkey and Israel have restored normal diplomatic relations after more than six years. The rift began in May 2010, when Israeli forces boarded a flotilla of aid ships sailing from Turkey to Gaza, killing 10 Turkish activists. The deal included an Israeli apology and compensation for the deaths, something long sought by Turkey. In return, Ankara has agreed to redirect all Gaza-bound aid through Israeli ports. The deal appears to have ended a tumultuous period in Israeli-Turkish relations, although many have accused the respective governments of caving in. Domestically, the Israeli government has come under attack for tacitly admitting fault, whereas the Turkish government has taken some fire from its Islamist supporters for allowing Israel to dictate the flow of aid.

In Israel, news of the deal has struck the wrong chord with many, including Yedioth Ahronoth’s Gilad Sharon who believes that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has damaged Israel’s dignity in exchange for smoothing over the relationship with Turkey: “When someone apologizes and expresses their willingness to compensate the other party, it is only because they have acted inappropriately, unlawfully, or unjustly. And so, I would appreciate it if the Cabinet were to explain what exactly we are apologizing for. Even the UN concluded that it was Israel’s right to block the sea passage to Gaza. So what part of that do we regret? What is our sin here?...when Germany recognized the Armenian genocide, Erdogan huffed and puffed for a bit before calming down, but when it comes to Israel, he knows we can be pushed around. Why shouldn’t he put pressure on our Cabinet if it will just fold beneath it? ...Our relationship with Turkey is important, but our national dignity is no less important.”

According to Jerusalem Post’s Ben Hartman and Maayan Groisman, one of the main criticisms aimed at the Israeli government’s negotiations with Turkish officials regards the lack of a clause dealing with the release of Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas: “The Israel-Turkey reconciliation pact is a ‘bitter mistake’ that does nothing to return an Israeli citizen missing in Gaza and believed to be held by Hamas, the family of Avraham ‘Abera’ Mengistu said on Wednesday. ‘The signing of the deal is a bitter mistake, an unfortunate, painful and infuriating, decision that ignores the suffering of the families,’ said Abera’s brother Ilan....On Wednesday a senior Hamas official claimed that Turkey is mediating a prisoner swap between the Palestinian terrorist organization and Israel....The official added that “an announcement on a prisoner swap may take place during the upcoming months,’ stating that the reconciliation deal concluded between Israel and Turkey will greatly contribute to the consolidation of a prisoner deal.”

Meanwhile, in Turkey, in an op-ed for Hurriyet Daily News, Selin Nasi points out that the restoration of relations between the two countries was in line with the incoming Turkish prime minister’s previous statements and signals a realpolitik Turkish foreign policy: “The point we have reached today, however, is the exact same one Israel suggested more than six years ago before the Mavi Marmara set sail - namely, that Turkey should send any aid via Ashdod....The deal between Turkey and Israel is the product of an anticipated revision in Ankara’s foreign policy, and is in accordance with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who said ‘we will increase the number of our friends’ as soon as he came to power....As all of these things were happening on June 27, we learned from Yildirim that there would be no delay in fostering new relations with Egypt. In building new bridges, next up might be Cyprus – or even Syria. But if one thing is certain, it’s that an ideological foreign policy is being abandoned in favor of one based on realpolitik and Turkey’s interests. In light of this, it would be appropriate to declare that Turkey pressed the ‘reset’ button on June 27.”

Given the mixed reception to the deal, Mr. Erdogan has tried to project strength by lashing out against the organizers of the Marmara flotilla for not coordinating their efforts with his government. In statements reported by Arutz Sheva’s Elad Benari, the Turkish president harangues members of the Islamist organization sponsoring the flotilla six years ago: “ ‘Did you ask me before you set sail? Did you ask my permission’ ... ‘When you set sail you need to ask me? Did you ask the prime minister before you embarked on a humanitarian mission from Turkey to Gaza?’ Erdogan asked. ‘[After the agreement] we have guarantees from Israel that it will authorize the entrance of humanitarian aid we send to Gaza’. The comments came hours after Israel's Cabinet voted to approve Israel's reconciliation agreement with Turkey, formalizing the controversial agreement in spite of some staunch opposition....Erdogan earlier this week hailed the deal with Israel, and said that it achieved all the goals he had set out to achieve.”

But not everyone agrees that this is such a great deal for Turkey, with some, including Hurriyet Daily News’ Semih Idiz agreeing that Mr. Erdogan will have a hard time convincing the Islamist wing of his party of the virtues of the deal: “As matters stand, Erdogan is going to have quite a bit of explaining to do to his Islamist grassroots supporters as to why he has been forced to go against the grain of his Islamism and normalize ties with Israel. Commentary in the pro-government media shows that there is discomfort over this development. … The Islamist Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), on the other hand, has rejected the rapprochement with Israel. It was this group – supported so avidly at the time by the government – that caused all the trouble in the first place, after it chartered the Mavi Marmara aid ship and tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010....All of this aside though, it is a good for Turkey that this normalization process in foreign policy - which will no doubt also include ties with Egypt and perhaps involve a more realistic take on Syria - has started. This is the only way Turkey can regain the international influence, let alone prestige, it lost.”

Turkish journalist Tulin Daloglu, meanwhile, takes to the pages of the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth to warn against a deal that would see the Turkish president emboldened by coming out of international isolation: “Seeing Turkey and Israel represented at the ambassadorial level will certainly add value to the geostrategic dynamics of the region, but I hope not to see an Israeli ambassador in Ankara before Erdogan makes his constitutional case. Israel should know Erdogan’s skill in exploiting such foreign deals. This one will allow him to claim he’s smoothing his relationship with the White House, and that no matter what he does, business as usual will … continue. It should not!...President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used foreign policy skillfully to serve the interest of his own domestic agenda in Turkey. He has always been able to link the country’s actions abroad to his carefully constructed image as a visionary leader; respected and admired by foreigners....The democratic values of freedom of the media, freedom of assembly and justice will prove to be the losers against the material calculations of the Israeli gas that awaits Western markets.”

The deal has also drawn attention from regional actors, not all of whom have received it with open arms. This Saudi Gazette editorial provides a commentary on the development: “In a remarkable 24 hours, it has emerged that Turkey has ended a six-year diplomatic break with Israel and apologized to Moscow for shooting down a Russian jet last November. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim has painted the rapprochement with Israel as a victory after the 2010 Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara aid convoy to Gaza, which saw the murder of ten Turks, including one who also held US citizenship....Not content with this face-saving accommodation with the hawkish Netanyahu government, in an uncharacteristic about-face, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been prepared to eat humble pie and apologize for the downing of the Russian fighter, which at the time, Ankara claimed to have been violating Turkish airspace....Putin, the loyal ally of the bloody Basher Assad, may be tempted to  further humiliate Erdogan or seek secret conditions that will undermine Turkey’s position in the alliance against the Damascus regime.”


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