Turkey and Israel: Is it an attitude or perception problem?

Turkey and Israel: Is it an attitude or perception problem?

During the United Nations “Alliance of Civilizations” conference in late February, when complaining about prejudices against Muslims, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan listed Zionism alongside anti-Semitism, fascism and Islamophobia as a “crime against humanity.” This remark on Zionism immediately drew criticism from the White House, the European Union and a host of governments. Last week, 89 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter urging Prime Minister Erdoğan to retract his remarks. It looks like its repercussions will linger for quite some time.

Erdoğan’s perception of Zionism does comply with the UN’s interpretation in 1975, declaring Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination,” which was later repealed in 1991. So he needs to be updated that Zionism is now defined as a movement that arose in the late 19th Century that sought to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine based on the principle of self-determination. However, since then the term has gained so many negative connotations that a whole new lexicon could be published. A Haaretz article last week stated that Zionism echoes how George Orwell once described fascism, as having “no meaning except insofar as it signifies something not desirable.” The Israeli occupation in the West Bank, its inhumane blockade of the Gaza Strip and longstanding practice of denying the Palestinians their basic civil rights destroyed the essential principles and original intent of Zionism.

Even if Erdoğan’s statement stems from just a perception problem, it will certainly be the icing on the cake. The relations between the two countries have already been frozen since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. Of the three conditions set by Turkey for the renewal of ties, it is known that Israel would accept paying compensation to the victims’ families and issuing a public apology. However, Israel is unwilling to accept Turkey’s third condition; that is, ending the Gaza blockade. Some circles are still optimistic. They point to the ongoing diplomatic talks between the two countries and the recent Israeli approval of the transfer of materials from Turkey to Gaza to build a Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital. In addition, the newly formed Israeli government is also expected to take some positive steps. But such expectations have all been thwarted in the past.

It is better to make a realistic assessment of the situation in Turkish-Israeli relations. Regional conditions and domestic politics in both countries have evolved in a way that makes the rehabilitation of a close Turkish-Israeli “strategic” relationship very unlikely. The two countries will continue to improve their economic relations and cooperate when necessary behind the scenes, but will keep their distance for the relevant future.

In my favorite cartoon, one character yells at the other, “You have an attitude problem!” And the other one replies, “No, you have a perception problem.” As long as both countries get stuck in this dialogue, there won’t be any exit from their current impasse.