Mending Israel-Turkey ties

Mending Israel-Turkey ties

I was in Israel last week, right after Israel’s apology for any wrongdoing during the Mavi Marmara incident. Indeed, Turkey deserved an apology for the incident long ago, but ultimately it was the Obama factor that made it come through. It was under the watchful eyes of President Obama himself that Prime Minister Netanyahu finally read the text to Prime Minister Erdoğan over the telephone. His voice did not sound happy, but he finally did the right thing. The apology text was agreed on over a year ago but only now, after the Israeli elections, did Netanyahu finally give in and read it. There was a sense of relief; not only in political but also in business circles, not only in Israel and the U.S. but also in Turkey and Palestine. However, without Obama in action, I believe that we would not have gotten the apology.

Israeli-Turkish commercial relations have not been affected much by the political crisis. However, the number of Israeli tourists dropped from more than 500,000 a year to a meager less than 50,000.

Basically, it was bad for the Antalya region. Before the crisis, Turkey was the second top destination of Israeli tourists - the top destination being the United States, where Israeli tourists find themselves secure and safe - but not any more. Feelings of insecurity echoed in the Israeli media, even among Turkish Jews. The apology itself is only the first step to start mending fences, there are still many things that need to be done. If you ask me, this time around there needs to be more on the people-to-people relations front. It is not only about apologizing and paying compensation.

The recent private Israeli initiative that allowed for Turkish trucks to pass through Israel to reach the Gulf must be noted as a positive step. With the ongoing Syrian crisis, Turkish trucks carrying containers have not been able to get down to the Gulf. Iraq was not safe and then Syria became unsafe too. The unrest in Port Said and the continuing security problems in Sinai after the fall of Mubarek did not allow Turkish containers to follow the İskenderun-Port Said-Sinai-Aqaba route. It was already an expensive journey and – with the additional safety problems - the route became un-operational. However, with a private Turkish initiative, the Israeli government has started allowing Turkish trucks to enter Israel from Haifa and then travel over the ElKhalil bridge to Jordan. This is a cheaper and safer route. Today, about a hundred trucks a week use this route. The potential is for around 500 trucks per week if visa conditions improve. This is good for Turkish outreach to the Gulf. It just happened by itself, thanks to a private Turkish-Israeli-Jordanian initiative. So, it seems that mending fences is not going to be that hard after all.

Another reason why mending fences may not be that hard? Let me tell you why I was in Israel last week. I was there to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the Jerusalem Arbitration Center (JAC). Despite the two-decade-long history of the Oslo Accords, never before has a private business-to-business arbitration mechanism has been established between Israel and Palestine. Now, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in Israel and ICC in Palestine have come together to establish the JAC, to solve Israeli-Palestinian business disputes. More importantly, they invited Mr. Rifat Hisarcıkılıoğlu, the President of the Turkish Chamber Federation (TOBB) and a businessman himself, to become the president of JAC. Turks are back in Jerusalem as arbitrators, as Munib al-Masri, the Head of ICC-Palestine said during the ceremony. Another reason to be hopeful.

I found the mood in Ramallah to be as defiant as the one in Diyarbakır during the Newroz celebrations.

The U.N. decision definitely seems to have focused the Palestinians on state building and economic development, but that is a different story that needs to be told separately.