Uneasy détente in Turkish-Israel relations

Uneasy détente in Turkish-Israel relations

Almost three years have passed since a raid by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara ship on May 31, 2010, that killed nine activists, eight Turks and one Turkish-American, who were trying to attract the world’s attention to the Israeli blockade on Gaza and break it with humanitarian aid. Coming after already substantially cooled-off bilateral relations over the previous year, the incident resulted in a nose-dive in ties: Turkey recalled its ambassador immediately, canceled joint military exercises, called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and shortly after the release of the U.N. Palmer report, expelled Israel’s ambassador, reducing its diplomatic representation to second-secretary level.

In a more alarming turn, Turkey also boosted its air and naval operations in the Mediterranean, changed its “Identification Friend or Foe” system on board its fighter planes, re-categorizing Israeli aircraft as hostile targets. Finally, on May 23, 2012, an Istanbul state prosecutor prepared indictments carrying life sentences for top four Israeli commanders involved in the raid, charging each of them with first-degree murder, assault and torture.

Despite several attempts to patch up the relationship, the gridlock between the two countries remained until last week, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on March 22 to apologize “for operational errors that led to loss of life” during the incident and “agreed to complete the agreement on compensation” for the families of the victims. He also agreed “to ease the blockade” and work with Turkey to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Erdoğan accepted the apology and pronounced his intention to normalize relations with Israel.

The fact that Turkey insisted on having U.S. President Barack Obama, witness the conversation during his visit to Israel showed the extent of the still-extant distrust between Turkey and Israel, as well as the importance of the U.S. mediation effort. It later became clear that the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Turkey at the beginning of March was crucial in the latest round of U.S. pressure on both sides and that President Obama was also personally involved.

On the Israeli side, the apology became possible only after former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the biggest obstacle, was left out of the government as a result of recent elections. A combination of flexibility on the Turkish side, U.S. pressure and regional developments created suitable environment for the apology. As such, the final apology was not about the raid or the fact that Turkish citizens were killed, but about the “operational errors that led to loss of life.” Similarly, the blockade on Gaza has not been lifted, but “eased” and conditioned on the continuation of the current calm.

The normalization will undoubtedly benefit both sides as well as the U.S. It will increase cooperation in many fields such as security, intelligence, trade, tourism and cooperation over the natural resources in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Turkey can become more active in its peace-building efforts in the Middle East. It will be much easier to align Turkey’s policies in the region, including on Syria and Iran, with those of the U.S. and Israel.

Yet, we should be rather careful about the lure of too much optimism. Although the “apology” is now behind us and “compensation” will be quickly worked out, the partial blockade and the developments in connection with Gaza are still important. Let us not forget that these were the underlying causes that led to the Davos incident. A downturn in Gaza might again just as easily prompt a harsh reaction from Turkey, as this is clearly a soft spot for the prime minister and the government.