Turkey-Israel ties to normalize?

Turkey-Israel ties to normalize?

“We want to leave this episode behind us. Turkey is a very important country. We want friendly relations. But the ball is now in Turkey’s court.”

These words were uttered by someone you would least expect: The spokesperson of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon.

Last week there was a most surprising piece of news in the Turkish press. It was written that Israel offered, through a Jewish businessman, to pay $1 billion to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara, the deadly raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Accordingly, the offer also included a partial lift on the Gaza blockade.

Just to sum up briefly: After the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, Turkey laid down three prerequisites for the normalization of relations. The first condition was an apology from Israel. This was fulfilled when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the phone following pressure by U.S. President Barack Obama. The second was the payment of the compensation and the third one, the easing of the blockade on Gaza.

Then is Israel now fulfilling these conditions? Are relations about to be normalized?

The right and highest-level person to speak on the matter would be the spokesperson of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, whom I called to ask, “Are these claims true?”

Emmanuel Nahshon abstained from making comments on the details of the negotiations. Yet he uttered the sentences which I quoted above one after the other.

Israel is going to have general elections on March 17. Nahshon says Turkey has not been mentioned during the electoral campaign at all. “This is because relations with Turkey are a supra-political issue, a state issue in Israel. So it’s not a dispute between political parties. Moreover, all parties want good relations with Turkey,” he says.

Yet, he complains, this is not the case in Turkey. “Israel has become a very political issue in Turkey and in electoral campaigns some politicians attack Israel just to become more popular.”

Nashron adds the following critical comment: “Compensation is not a matter anymore. The only matter is if Turkey wants to leave this episode behind. This is a strategic decision to be taken by the Turkish government. Unfortunately until now Turkey has not taken that decision.”

Arad Nir, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists who comes first to mind when speaking about Turkey, says Israel’s diplomats and security and military establishment, including Mossad, think that everything should be done to normalize relations. “[This includes] the national security advisors of Netanyahu,” he says.

Nir also emphasizes that for the first time, Turkey has not been mentioned during the electoral campaign at all: “This is due to the predominant opinion that Erdoğan would be against Israel whatever politicians would do. So politicians are fed up.”

Yet still, has such an offer on compensation been made? All of the officials and journalists whom I spoke with and work on Turkey say they have never heard about such an offer and that it has not been in the Israeli press at all. Moreover, such a move is seen as unlikely since the amount mentioned is too high. The two countries had agreed on around $20 million in early 2014 after long and tough negotiations.

Furthermore, it is being emphasized that compensation is not an issue anymore and that the two countries have already been on the verge of a solution. Accordingly, the only and main issue is the mistrust between the two leaders.

However, the fact that Erdoğan is a pragmatic leader and the possibility that the U.S. will increase its pressure are considered factors which might bring about normalization.

If the only issue is between the two leaders, then how will the elections affect relations? In other words: Will Netahyahu stay? And if so, what?

According to the most recent polls, Netanyahu’s center-right Likud Party and the center-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog are running neck and neck. However, both seem unlikely to be unable to form a majority government. Hence, the party which will be able to form a coalition will be the winner of the elections. And it is highly likely that it will be easier for Netanyahu to form a coalition.

According to Alon Liel, a retired ambassador and former undersecretary of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the probability that Netanyahu will stay is 50-50. However, even if he stays, he would either have to distribute key ministries such as defense, foreign affairs and the Treasury to other parties. Or, he would have a rotating prime ministry with Herzog.

“A new team could serve as a wonderful opportunity to change the atmosphere and normalize the relations,” he says.

Last but not least: A high-level official in Ankara whom I spoke with in late January told me just the opposite: That “the ball is in Israel’s court.” He emphasized that the immediate payment of the compensation is vital for the sake of the relations and that this is expected from Israel after the elections.

But now Israel is saying that “the ball is in Turkey’s court.” What is expected from Turkey?

Arad Nir replies: “If Turkey sent an ambassador to Tel Aviv, it would take less than a second for Israel to send back an ambassador to Ankara.”

He concludes with the following comment: “Such a trust-building measure from Turkey would change not only Turkey-Israel relations, but the whole region.”