Turkish-Israeli ties take a surprising turn

Turkish-Israeli ties take a surprising turn

Like many I, too, was taken by surprise by the Israeli apology over the Mavi Marmara incident, especially after the acrimony caused by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent Zionism remark. The prospects for a rapprochement appeared highly unlikely under these circumstances. But, as a believer in Turkish-Israeli ties – albeit no less a critic of Israeli policies as I have been of the Erdoğan government’s foreign policy – this is one occasion when I am glad to have been wrong.

The Islamic media is glorifying the Israeli apology and presenting the incident as a victory for Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Israeli fundamentalists and nationalists, on the other hand, are talking about having been forced to eat crow.

It is a fact that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can turn to their constituency now and say, “We stood firm and got what we wanted.” They needed a foreign policy success story anyway, having failed to come up with one for so long.

But if we overlook the background of the Israeli apology, not to mention U.S. President Barack Obama’s role in bringing this about, we will miss more than half the picture. After all, both Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are known to be stubborn politicians. If Netanyahu wanted to, he could have resisted all the pressure to apologize.

Erdoğan, too, could have found some reason to resist accepting an Israeli apology if he wanted. Many have argued all along that Israel’s need for Turkey is greater than vice versa. This, however, never meant that Turkey does not need Israel. The official statement issued on behalf of Erdoğan March 22, in connection with the Israeli apology, in fact says it all.

According to that statement, Erdoğan told Netanyahu, during their historic phone conversation, that relations between the two countries are of “vital strategic importance for regional peace and stability.” Erdoğan, like Netanyahu, was clearly caught between his ideological instincts and the need to face up to regional realities.

Netanyahu admitted over his Facebook account that the threat of chemical weapons from Syria provided the main motivation for doing what was necessary to improve ties with Turkey. Turkey also shares the same fear about Syria, of course – in addition to other fears related to this crisis – and the deployment of NATO’s Patriot batteries in the east proves this.

But it is not just Syria. The Arab Spring has set into motion unexpected regional dynamics that have left both countries equally concerned. This is why the Israeli apology is merely a prelude to a normalization of ties. The real aim is to cooperate on a strategic level “for peace and stability in the region,” as Erdoğan put it. This is what the U.S. and the EU also expect from the two countries.

Obviously there are steps Israel has to take now, in line with its apology. There are, however, responsibilities that fall on Ankara too. For example, having silently given up its veto against Israel in NATO, Ankara will have to openly facilitate broader cooperation between NATO and Israel aimed at the region.

There are those in the region who see all this and will be extremely cool, if not hostile, toward the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. The list is headed by Iran and Greek Cyprus, for obvious reasons. But this rapprochement is set to position Turkey once again as an important player in the search for peace between Israel and Palestine. It is interesting to note that Hamas also appears happy about the turn of events, although it is presenting it as a great victory for Turkey against Israel.

We must not be overtaken by too much enthusiasm though. There are still pitfalls that have to be avoided if Turkish-Israeli ties are to reach the level of strategic interaction desired. But matters have been set on the right course now, and that is good news for the two countries and for the region, even if there will be those who reject this claim.