CONTRIBUTOR > Turkish-Israeli Relations: Time for urgent reassessment


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The outbreak of hostilities around the Gaza Strip has brought up Turkey’s role in the Middle East with added urgency. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been seeking to reposition Turkey as a regional power. Following the new realities created by the Arab revolutions, Ankara was supposed to use its economic prosperity and political influence to promote stability and peace in the conflict-torn region.

However, as the current crisis erupted, Turkey found itself marginalized and unable to maneuver effectively. The reason for that is clear: over the past two years, Turkey has damaged its relations with Israel and identified itself with Hamas to the extent that it has lost any credibility as an honest broker and a fair mediator. Beyond statements of harsh condemnation against Israel and enthusiastic support for Hamas, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can do practically nothing.

Without the diplomatic capability to talk to Jerusalem, and having lost all trust within Israeli political circles, the Turkish prime minister can only sit in Cairo and watch how President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt mediates a cease-fire and negotiates a long-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas, with Egyptian guarantees, to boot. You need to talk to both sides if you want to be able to do that – Morsi, a president from the Muslim Brotherhood no less, can; Erdoğan, prime minister of Turkey, cannot.

Things were not always like that, of course. In better times, Erdoğan himself was able to mediate between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and could have an open dialogue with past and present Israeli governments. But it was his choice to escalate the conflict and bring about a virtual collapse of the relationship between the two countries. What is clearly being put in jeopardy here is the Turkish national interest, not only by sidelining Ankara in the Gaza conflict; if things remain as they are now, Turkey will be unable to play any role in future negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and it is already severely handicapped in dealing with the Syrian civil war, with the conflict in Iraq, as it is with the politics of the eastern Mediterranean energy fields. In the absence of any serious cooperation with Israel, potential dangers for Turkey lie also in the area of knowing about terror threats and effectively fighting them.

It is, therefore, time for Erdoğan to reassess his policy toward Israel in light of recent events. It is time to abandon the rhetoric that gets the Arab street all worked up and scores a few points among uninformed, excitable Turks as well. It is time for pragmatic, level-headed Realpolitik. Erdoğan is certainly capable of doing that – he is highly intelligent, very popular, and clearly understands what is expedient, not just what may seem at certain points “honorable.” He does not have to love Israel; but for Turkey’s sake, he must be able to work with the Israeli government.

The Mavi Marmara affair was a serious issue, no doubt, but both Turkey and Israel, each in its own history, managed to handle and resolve much worse events. It is time to return to the text worked out in Geneva by Ambassador Özdem Sanberk and Mr. Joseph Chiechanover, who represented Turkey and Israel in talks before the Palmer report was leaked to the New York Times and then published by the U.N. There are indications that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will revisit the formula with a fresh, positive look. Involving Egypt on the issue of lifting the Gaza blockade on all goods but arms would deal with the third Turkish condition, whereas even Turkey might now understand why an arms blockade is absolutely necessary for Israeli security.

Both in Ankara and Jerusalem efforts should now be made to repair the relations and allow Turkey to have a say and play a constructive role in the newly emerging Middle East and Mediterranean.

Professor Ehud R. Toledano is the university chair for Ottoman and Turkish Studies at Tel Aviv University.


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Köksüz Kosmopolit

11/21/2012 1:38:48 PM

Prof. Toledano's more-in-sorrow-than-anger advice to RTE to approach Bibi cap in hand is disingenuous. Both governments built the Mavi Marmara fiasco, and for both governments the fiasco continues to serve its crude, populist, cynical purpose. Yes, it is urgent that Turkey and Israel repair their relationship. But that will never happen as long as Israel is governed by Likud/Beiteinu and Turkey is governed by AKP and an exiled caliph.

Truth Teller

11/20/2012 10:08:21 PM

Dear Hasan Kutlay. If " Israel is a colonial thief that builds settlements on Palestinian land" what are the Turks if not " A colonial thief that builds settlements on Byzantine land ".

Hasan Kutlay

11/20/2012 8:11:55 PM

Do you know what your proposition means for the benefit of Israel? It means building settlements on Palestinian land without being isolated (by for example Turkey) is BETTER than building settlements with being isolated.It means just that, Israel is fooling us. No to the crap about "Turkey & Israel should approach", no approach whatsoever. Turkey must BOYCOT Israel.

Hasan Kutlay

11/20/2012 5:36:30 PM

No mr. Ehud. I don't want my government to pursue good relations with Israel. All those "mediating" stuff are ineffective anyway. These were only marginal contributions of Turkey that never were and could be groundbreaking. Israel make us believe that peace will happen if we pursue good relations with them, but i don't believe it. Israel is a colonial thief that builds settlements on Palestinian land, the hell with good relations with such a country.

suat yildirim

11/20/2012 4:04:52 PM

Prf.Ehud R Toledano It is all very well give advise to Mr. Erdogan what about all the other so called big leaders of US. EU. Where are they. list Mr. Erdogan try to do some think talking of the truth what is going on in Mideast .Old Turkish saying < if you speak of truth they chase you of from 7 villages .

Turk down under

11/20/2012 2:50:59 PM

"It is therefore time for Turkey to reassess their relationship with Erdogan and the AKP"! We live in hope

Roger Harding

11/20/2012 2:30:26 PM

PROFESSOR EHUD R. TOLEDANO, You have words or advise for PM Erdogan. Good on you. However, do you have any good ideas to offer the right-wing, extremely religious fanatics sitting in the governent of Israel at the moment?

stella maris

11/20/2012 8:15:47 AM

Erdogan, whose comments and actions are fogged by irrationality, goes on thinking that Turkey will play a "leading role" in the new Middle East. She will not and Egyptians as well as Syrians and the Jihad itself have made this quite clear by now. It will use Erdogans obsession with Israel as a usefull tool only for a certain time. The Arabs do not like the Turks and in their competition for power there is not room for them. Now Turkey faces being cut off from the West as well.


11/20/2012 12:46:52 AM

"It is, therefore, time for Erdoğan to reassess his policy toward Israel in light of recent events. It is time to abandon the rhetoric that gets the Arab street all worked up and scores a few points among uninformed, excitable Turks as well." Hope we get some comments from the regular "uninformed and excitable Turks" regarding Mr. Erdogan's lack of diplomatic skills and vendetta against Israel which has began to backfire. Regards
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