A new threshold in Turkish-Israeli reconciliation

A new threshold in Turkish-Israeli reconciliation

Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avcı’s visit to Tel Aviv set another milestone in the reconciliation process between Turkey and Israel, as it marked the first ministerial visit from the former to the latter since 2010.  

Avcı attended the International Tourism Exhibition in Tel Aviv, where he met his Israeli counterpart, Yariv Levin, to discuss ways to boost tourism and projects aimed at improving cultural ties.  

Turkey has always been one of the top vacation destinations for Israelis due to its proximity as well as the cultural affinity between the two peoples. However, in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, the deterioration of relations dealt a severe blow to tourism. 

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of Israeli tourists coming to Turkey dropped drastically from 500,000 visitors in 2008 to 79,140 in 2011. 

Even though these numbers have gradually increased in concert with the rapprochement process, they have not reached the previous figures. 

The tourism sector constitutes 12 percent of Turkey’s GDP. Unfortunately, the revenues from tourism faced a significant drop of 40 percent in 2016 due to security issues. 

“Terrorism is a global problem; it is not particular to Turkey. Turkey is as safe as Belgium, France and Germany,” said Avcı during an interview on TRT, assuring the Israeli public. 

But Joseph Fischer, an Israeli tourism executive, argues that it is not realistic, at least in the short term, to expect an increase in the number of Israeli tourists coming to Turkey given the travel warnings issued by the Israeli government in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in Turkey. Fisher also highlights that 80 percent of Israeli visitors to Turkey in 2016 were, in fact, Israeli-Arab citizens. 

While Avcı was engaged in restoring cultural relations between Turkey and Israel, another high-level delegation of Turkish energy officials was in Jerusalem to conduct meetings with Israeli Energy Ministry officials and representatives of the Delek Group and Noble energy in Jerusalem and discuss gas pipeline projects between Israel and Turkey. 

The delegation also visited the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007. The group examined alternative solutions and investment opportunities to ease energy shortages facing Gazans. 

The increasing diplomatic traffic between Turkey and Israel indicates that the reconciliation process is on a positive track. Last week, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, came to Ankara for the first Turkey-Israel bilateral dialogue meeting following six years of rupture. And last month, Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar met IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan on the sidelines of a NATO meeting to develop security cooperation. 

While common strategic interests push the two countries closer, one has to bear in mind that the reconciliation process is indeed a very sensitive period. Both sides need time to rebuild trust in order to restore cooperation in various fields.  

The already turbulent political setting in the Middle East does not make the political leaders’ job any easier. On the contrary, U.S. President Donald Trump’s overt pro-Israeli stance, particularly his plan to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – which has yet to be shelved – bears the risk of provoking violence that could shake the fault lines in the Middle East over the Palestinian issue. It could have grave repercussions for Turkish-Israeli ties as well. 

In this context, Avcı’s visit was the victim of poor timing, as the Knesset passed a contentious bill legalizing Jewish settlements on private Palestinian land in the West Bank and IDF forces struck Gaza four times in retaliation for Hamas attacks – all just a day before the minister arrived. 

While the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned Israel for the settlement bill, conservative circles in social media called on the Turkish delegation to cancel its meetings and return to Turkey. The fact that Avcı continued his schedule signified a crucial stress-test demonstrating the extent to which the two countries are able to isolate their relations from the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The initial results are promising so far.