Israel welcomes the Erdoğan road show

Israel welcomes the Erdoğan road show

Renewed unrest in Egypt makes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s promised (and oft postponed) visit to Gaza an unlikely reality. Regardless of when he makes the journey, however, most Israelis will casually observe the festivities with the tired dismissal that comes from the overexposure of such populist grandstanding. Contrary to popular thinking, however, Erdoğan’s long-anticipated road show in Gaza will actually serve Israel’s interests.

Prior to reconciliation talks, the Turkish government made three demands of Israel: an official apology for the Mavi Marmara incident, financial compensation to the families of the victims, and Israel’s lifting of its blockade of the Gaza Strip. With an apology already in the bag and compensation talks entering their fifth consecutive month, Erdoğan’s trip would render the Gaza blockade a non-factor in further negotiations.

The blockade never played a central role in negotiations, and the Turks already dropped the issue once before in 2011. More importantly, Israel’s legal blockade has gradually eased in recent months, as evidenced by the expansion of fishing rights, recent visits of high-ranking officials (including Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar and Turkish FM Ahmet Davutoğlu) and Israel’s readiness to allow the transfer of supplies for the construction of the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital.

This shift in policy not only demonstrates that the blockade’s primary purpose is to prevent terrorist organizations from acquiring weapons and not create an “open-air prison” as has been previously argued, but also shows Israel’s flexibility in the face of increased pressure. As Gaza’s highest-profile guest to date, Erdoğan would be unwittingly approving Israel’s policy adjustments (though he would never admit it), leaving compensation to the Mavi Marmara families as the remaining issue between the two countries.

What will Erdoğan’s visit accomplish? It is unlikely to have any regional impact, though it would be another instance in which Turkey has engaged in traditionally Egyptian affairs by courting the Palestinians.

Domestically, however, Erdoğan hopes that instagramming with Palestinian children will provide some welcome public relations relief in the wake of a trying month. In the eyes of the global community who watched in shock as Turkish police tear-gassed protestors at Gezi Park, Erdoğan’s parading in Gaza will likely have the opposite effect; it will be seen as a self-serving quest for a man whose hypocritical foreign policy and polarizing rhetoric have left him seeking applause outside of Turkey. If he does not fulfill his promise to Barack Obama to visit Ramallah as well, his visit will be frowned upon even more.

In sum, this would be a small victory for Israel, which has learned the hard way that Erdoğan lives for drama, bold gestures, and extreme language (much of which was toned down in the face of American criticism). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also deserves praise by not being baited into a rhetorical sparring match with his Turkish counterpart. By refusing to play Erdoğan’s game, Israel is shedding the troubling memory of the Mavi Marmara in an act of calculated restraint that exemplifies how democracies are meant to behave under duress.

When Erdoğan struts before the anticipating crowds, holds hands with Ismail Haniyeh and trumpets Turkish achievements, he will only be reinforcing his image as an opponent, rather than a partner for progress in the region. For an Israeli public desensitized to world leaders excoriating their government while cooperating behind closed doors, this is all, sadly, business as usual. Turks, on the other hand, should be asking themselves whether the national budget should be spent on hollow forays designed to coddle their premier’s ego.

Gabriel Mitchell is an Israel Research Fellow at Shalem College and the Israel-Turkey project coordinator for Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.