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MICHAEL HERZOG

CONTRIBUTOR > An Israel-Turkey deal is good for both countries

MICHAEL HERZOG

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Months after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the Mavi Marmara incident, the deal to restore relations is stuck, and Israelis increasingly feel Turkey has not lived up to its side of the bargain.

Netanyahu’s carefully worded apology, directed at “the Turkish people for any error that may have led to the loss of life,” was supposed to be the first phase of a wider agreement. Israel also agreed to compensate bereaved families, and Netanyahu promised to continue easing pressure on Gaza as long as Hamas’ cease-fire was maintained. In return, Turkey was supposed to end legal claims against Israelis who were involved in the unfortunate incident and to ensure immunity for Israeli officers from private prosecutions. Turkey also agreed to the return of ambassadors.

The apology was not easy for Netanyahu. Israel felt it acted within its rights in enforcing the blockade against a hostile, armed entity from whose territory rockets were constantly fired on Israel – a right confirmed by the United Nations’ Palmer report. Its internal inquiries concluded that while there were operational errors, its soldiers were fighting for their lives when they met planned, violent resistance on board the Mavi Marmara from İHH activists.

But with Obama’s encouragement, and keen to restore relations with an important power amid regional turmoil, Netanyahu made the gesture. He believed that with common interests, particularly in Syria, Turkey would also be motivated to contribute to restoring relations, even if the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) reorientation of Turkey toward the Islamic world meant the close ties of the past were over.

Since Netanyahu picked up the phone and made the apology, however, Israel has been disappointed. On the surface the deal is being held up by technical issues. The sides are still haggling over the amount of compensation, though only several million dollars separate them. A more serious challenge is that Turkey now refuses to commit to providing legal immunity to Israelis, claiming it is constitutionally problematic for the executive branch to interfere with the judiciary.

Many Israelis suspect the real causes of the hold-up are deeper. Facing domestic unrest, and planning his course to the elected presidency, Erdoğan seems in no hurry to conclude the deal, now that he has received the apology. He and his party may prefer the reliable tactic of generating support among their political base by bashing Israel, exemplified by Erdoğan’s reference earlier this year to Zionism as a “crime against humanity” and Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay’s recent blaming of the “Jewish disapora” for the Gezi Park protests.

However, maintaining the feud with Israel comes at the cost of both Israeli and Turkish national interests. This shift of Turkey away from Israel, a process which began before the Mavi Marmara incident, ended many years of mutually beneficial cooperation.

The Arab awakening highlighted many shared interests. Both countries, for their own reasons, would welcome the Bashar al-Assad regime’s departure, but do not want to see Syria partitioned, become a failed state, or become dominated by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Both fear the consequences of a prolonged civil war and its spill-over effect on them and other neighboring countries, including the proliferation of chemical weapons. Both expect the U.S. to play a more active role in supporting the opposition. Like Israel, Turkey sees danger in the success of a predominantly-Shiite radical axis combining Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Turkey also sees danger in a nuclear-armed Iran, though it rejects the use of an Israeli military option against it.

These shared interests can manifest themselves in many quiet forms of cooperation. A good example was the recent revelation that Israel has quietly replaced Syria as a vital trade conduit linking Turkey and Jordan and through them Europe and the Gulf.

The two countries can also benefit from cooperation on energy and trade. There are even ideas of exporting Israeli gas from the Mediterranean to Europe through Turkey. Such a move requires confidence in the stability of bilateral political relations.

Furthermore, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry working intensively on getting Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations, Turkey’s distancing from Israel and its alignment with Hamas has robbed it of the ability to play an effective role in the process.

It is in the interests of both countries, therefore, to conclude the deal and normalize relations. With no breakthrough, relations could deteriorate further, while normalized relations could play a stabilizing and mutually beneficial role in turbulent times.

Retired Brig Gen Michael Herzog is senior visiting fellow for BICOM and an international fellow of the Washington Institute. He is the author a new paper, ‘BICOM Expert View: What Happened to Israel-Turkey Reconciliation.’

July/22/2013

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