A chance to revisit the ‘zero problems’ policy

A chance to revisit the ‘zero problems’ policy

There appears to be a consensus among diplomats I have talked to over the past few days that Israel’s apology over the Mavi Marmara raid, and its acceptance by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “on behalf of the Turkish nation,” as he put it, has provided Turkey with an opportunity to regain some of the regional influence it lost, particularly in terms of the Middle East peace process.

This, however, is contingent on government officials staying away from the “we brought Israel to heel” narrative currently prevalent among Turkey’s Islamists. Otherwise, it is clear that efforts to normalize ties between the two countries will not stand much of a chance.

There are those who believe that Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have a negative ideological fixation on Israel which will surface again and block any progress in ties. It is obvious that if this process is to succeed, Erdoğan in particular is going to have to tone down his anti-Israeli rhetoric.

There are, nevertheless, those who believe that if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not gotten solid assurances from U.S. President Barack Obama, who brokered the deal between Israel and Turkey, he would have never apologized. Whatever the truth may be, it remains to be seen if Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will consider Turkey’s long-term interests or whether their ideological fixations will prevail in the end.

But the general belief, not just among diplomats but also among analysts, is that should efforts to normalize ties with Israel be blocked again, this will mean that Turkey’s influence in the region will be even less than today. Not only will Turkey not have a place in any efforts at securing a Middle East peace, but Ankara will not be able to take back some of the roles that Egypt took on as Ankara’s regional influence waned after its breakup with Israel.

It is also being assumed generally that Turkey’s influence in Washington also increased after Erdoğan accepted Netanyahu’s apology. If Turkish-Israeli relations were to go into a tailspin once again, this will obviously butter the bread of the anti-Turkish lobbyists in Washington who are still active today.

There is also the potential for cooperation in the energy field that has arisen now that Turkish-Israeli ties have been put on the right track. It is clear to industry sources that such cooperation will not only benefit the two countries but the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, contributing to security in this turbulent part of the world.

If the means could be found to factor in Cyprus also into this equation this is all the better according to these sources. But if ties with Israel go wrong again it is clear that Ankara will face a completely different situation in the region with respect to the energy issue.

Developments with Israel have in fact placed Turkey in a good light again, providing Ankara with a chance to revisit its failed “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu must see that this potential exists now and should therefore engage in new diplomatic initiatives, which is Turkey’s soft-power.

These should include an effort to try once again to resolve age-old problems, starting off with the Cyprus problem. Any progress in Cyprus will obviously benefit Turkish-EU ties also. Another file Turkey can bring down from the shelf where it has been gathering dust involves relations with neighboring Armenia.

Of course, there is the Azerbaijan factor here that Ankara can not overlook. But Baku could be made to understand that a Turkey, which has normal ties with Armenia, could play a role in trying to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem too, especially if it has resolved its own Cyprus problem in the interim.

Davutoğlu is said to be a “visionary.” However, his vision has given scant results thus far. He too must see, however, that a new opportunity has arisen for him to realize his vision and for Turkey to display its soft power. It remains to be seen how he will use this opportunity.