Turkey, Israel don’t see eye to eye on Syria, Arab Spring

Turkey, Israel don’t see eye to eye on Syria, Arab Spring

The fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse was the central consideration for Israel’s March 22 apology for killing nine Turks on a Gaza-bound aid ship, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obviously, Syria provided a good alibi for Netanyahu to explain to the Israeli public why it has taken three years to say yes to Turkey’s terms, which were the same from the very beginning. We could not expect him to say, “I finally apologized because I got rid of Avidgor Lieberman!”

Independent of his statement, though, Israel’s apology does bring the question of how normalization of ties between Turkey and Israel will affect the course of the Syrian civil war. I doubt that the news about Israel’s apology has made Bashar al-Assad lose sleep. Despite recent firing between Syria and Israel, as of now there is no indication that Israel has changed its original stance on Syria; which was basically the devil I know is better than the devil I don’t know; an understanding that has dominated Israel’s whole perception of the Arab Spring.

There is therefore a fundamental divergence of view currently between Turkey and Israel about the new Middle East. As Israel finds out more about the new “devil,” it becomes more freaked out; whereas Turkey says although the past has seen devils in power, the future does not necessarily entail new “devils” in government. In other words, while Israel is worried that the dictators it knew how to deal with will be replaced by radical Islamist groups, Turkey is confident this will not necessarily be so. Yet even if the ascent of radical groups to power is avoided, Israel still has reason to be wary, since any new government – be it in Syria or elsewhere, which will be more open to its constituencies pressure – will be more demanding towards Israel. In this respect Turkey and Israel sit in opposite corners as far as the Arab Spring is concerned and as such, the two will find it hard to see eye to eye when it comes to the crisis in Syria in the short term.

Yet the Israeli government’s decision to finally apologize might be a sign that Israel is realizing that it has to quit the ostrich policy it has been endorsing since the early days of the Arab Spring. It has to quit this ostrich policy because it is not sustainable. “Sustainability” is a key word here, for it also explains the reason behind Israel’s recent decision. Strained relations between Turkey and Israel were simply unsustainable. Both sides knew this all along; the rest is just technical details about finding the right timing: Israel had already eased restrictions on Gaza since the beginning of this year; the forming of the new coalition without Lieberman together with the visit of the U.S. president provided the right combinations for the extension of an apology.

Trade, tourism, and the like will pick up quickly; but full normalization at the political level will not take place as quickly, since it will still take a long time for Israel to fully quit its ostrich policy about the new Middle East. Reaching a more “correct” reading of the Middle East will have to bring with it a change in Israel’s Palestinian policy; which is in its current form unsustainable as well. Without substantial change in Israel’s settlements policy, which torpedoes permanent peace, the relations at the political level between Turkey and Israel will be restricted to repeating the phrase, “let’s agree to disagree.”