Turkey and Israel: Now is the time to reconcile

Turkey and Israel: Now is the time to reconcile

I strongly believe that the time is right for Turkey and Israel to mend their critically important bilateral relationship which has suffered a precipitous decline since 2010. With the Middle East in turmoil as a result of the Arab Spring, the perilously unfolding crisis in Syria, concerns around the Iranian nuclear program and the recent expansion of the Netanyahu government all suggest that restoring their bilateral relationship now will serve the strategic interests of both former allies. Will Israel and Turkey recognize the potential gains they can both reap once they remove any obstacles standing in the way of rapprochement, knowing that full collaboration at this time is central to a regional stability that directly impacts their respective national security concerns?

Perhaps the most alarming issue at this particular time is the turmoil in Syria, in which Turkey has taken a strong and principled stand against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Israel, for its part, has prevented potentially greater conflagration by carefully and quietly monitoring the situation. As neighbors of Syria, both have unique national interests in dealing with post-al-Assad Syria in a manner that will ensure regional stability and enhance their short and long-term strategic and security interests.

The general regional uproar resulting from the Arab Spring has dramatically shifted power relations. With the diminution of bilateral relations between Israel and Egypt, Turkey’s stature in the region has grown immensely, with Turkey emerging as an attractive interlocutor and model for the Arab world. The projected continued regional instability requires that both countries seek a renewed strategic partnership to handle the unpredictable nature of the region’s upheaval.

Israel’s hawkish stance against Iran’s nuclear program has dramatically increased regional tension as world powers continue to work toward a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Turkey, who is just as concerned over Iran’s nuclear program, can play an important role to diffuse the tensions between Israel and Iran. Both Israel and Turkey have mutual interests in engaging in constructive dialogue that could reduce the regional friction regarding Iran’s nuclear program from which they can both greatly benefit.

Turkey’s recent move to indict four senior Israeli military officers over the flotilla raid comes at the wrong time. To do so now when efforts are being made to reconcile the two countries is the wrong political move and sends the wrong message. The conflicts existing between Turkey and Israel remain serious but can be ameliorated provided they set emotions aside and instead concentrate on the larger picture. Israel does have its share of mistakes but it also seeks to bring an end to the sad Marmara episode. There is a growing sense that both sides want to preserve the prospect of restoring their relationship, since the future stability of the region depends largely on full cooperation between the two most powerful nations in the area.

What might certainly further encourage rapprochement between the two countries is the fact that even though diplomatic relations, military exchanges and tourism from Israel to Turkey have been reduced to historically low levels, trade relations between them have reached new heights in 2011-2012. From every indication, both countries want to maintain viable trade relations which could provide a solid foundation to rebuild strong diplomatic bilateral relations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently expanded coalition government makes him less beholden to challenges by smaller parties. Of particular significance is the upcoming anniversary of the Gaza flotilla raid on May 31, which effectively severed Turkish-Israeli bilateral relations. Nearly a year ago, both sides reached an agreement where Israel would apologize for the incident, compensate the victims and allow Turkey to send foodstuffs and materials for civilian consumption to Gaza, but Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s threat to withdraw from the coalition forced Netanyahu to back down. Turkey has repeatedly reaffirmed that once Israel apologizes, Ankara will resume full diplomatic relations. Now that Netanyahu commands an overwhelming majority, he can offer Ankara the long-awaited apology without fear of Lieberman’s departure, especially since he agreed to the original language of the document.

Instead of recalling the tragedy on its anniversary, Israel should meet Turkey’s demands and put the Marmara affair behind, which could go far beyond repairing the rift between the two former allies. From this necessary rapprochement, Israel will dramatically benefit by ending its isolation from the Muslim world and Turkey will likewise make gains through its newfound assertiveness as a regional power.
Should Israel decide to apologize it would not be seen as a sign of weakness but one of strength of conviction. It would not be a victory for Turkey but a victory for the human spirit that transcends the hour and brings nations together. The time is now.

*Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.