Rapprochement with Israel not imminent, it seems

Rapprochement with Israel not imminent, it seems

We keep hearing that a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is just around the corner, and will happen as soon as diplomats work out the final details. Yet nothing seems to happen. Reports on the topic indicate that Israel is the reluctant party now, seeing no urgency in making up with Turkey, especially if it appears that it is giving in to Ankara’s demands. 

It will be recalled that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minster at the time, in March 2013 and apologized for the raid on the Mavi Marmara aid ship by Israeli commandoes who killed 10 pro-Palestinian Turkish activists and agreed to pay compensation to the aggrieved families.

Netanyahu acted under pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama when he issued his apology. The expectation was that Turkey would respond by acting to normalize diplomatic ties, which were brought down to their lowest level after the Mavi Marmara incident.

This did not happen because Ankara still insisted that Israel end its siege of Gaza. We heard through the grapevine recently that Turkey had lowered its demand and would accept access by Turkish aid groups to the Palestinian enclave.

We learn now, from President Spokesman İbrahim Kalin, that Turkey’s initial demand stands, so we seem to be back to square one. According to reports in the international press, Israel is also in no hurry at this stage to go back to the “status quo ante” with Turkey. 

It has seen that it can get along well enough without normalized ties with Ankara. Besides, as far as economic ties are concerned, these do not appear to have taken a blow, since bilateral trade is doing just fine.  As recent events show, Israeli tourists had also started returning to Turkey, and if they do not do so now, it is because of the rising threat of terrorism in this country. 

Kalin’s attempt at “standing firm” against Israel, therefore, is not as meaningful as he would like it to be.  But it does reveal something about the Turkish position, regardless of whether Israel is keen to normalize ties or not. 

According to Ahmet K. Han, who lectures in international relations at Kadir Has University and who is a frequent TV commentator on foreign policy issues, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is constrained by a quandary of its own making.

Erdoğan acknowledged recently that the reality of the region is that Turkey and Israel need each other. But Han says the government is not able to take the necessary steps because it knows this will have a political cost domestically in terms of its grassroots Islamist supporters.

“They don’t know how to do it without appearing to have conceded on their basic principles,” Han told the Hürriyet Daily News. “Their dilemma, however, is that normalized ties with Israel are necessary for both tactical and strategic reasons,” he added, highlighting adverse political and economic developments affecting the region.

Asked if the need for “realpolitik” in the face of these regional developments would not eventually push the AKP government into normalizing ties with Israel, Han said it could, but retained an element of doubt on this score. 

“Realpolitik is all very well but this government has a habit of making dire mistakes in foreign policy as it panders to changes in domestic politics. It also continues to misread international developments for the same reason, and therefore still retains its ability to make these mistakes,” Han said.

Looking at the general picture and keeping Han’s remarks in mind, it appears that any expectation that Turkey and Israel will return to their former ties any time soon is premature. 

There is clearly no real will on the Israeli side, and the AKP government, while understanding the need for improving these ties, has enmeshed domestic and foreign policy in such a manner that it does not know how to extricate itself from the dilemma this has produced.