What do Israelis think about the conflict with Turkey?

What do Israelis think about the conflict with Turkey?

“What? You are going to Turkey?!” “Are you crazy?” “Be careful not to get kidnapped!” 

“I’m surprised you came back alive!” These are some of the comments I heard before and after my recent visit to Istanbul. Despite attempts to classify the Israeli-Turkish conflict as a political one, the relations between the two societies have suffered an enormous setback that might not be easy to fix, even if the two governments solve the dispute diplomatically.

More than simply affecting mutual travel, and due to sensitivity both governments have for public opinion, there is a direct connection between what people think about the conflict and the efforts to resolve it in the political level. Therefore, to understand why Israel stands firm in its demand not to apologize to Turkey, it is necessary first to understand why Israelis object to an apology and how they perceive the crisis in relations. 

There is no doubt the incident that had the biggest impact on relations was the killing of nine Turkish civilians in the flotilla incident. There is a consensus among Israelis that the IDF soldiers were acting in self-defense. In the eyes of Israelis, those who were on board the Mavi Marmara, before being Turkish civilians, were Islamic militants who intended to create a provocation and attacked the soldiers.

Moreover, those soldiers belong to an Israeli elite unit who volunteer to go through the toughest training and are considered to be the “finest of our sons” in a country where military service is mandatory.

Submitting an apology would be the same as admittance in the wrongdoing of those soldiers and could be interpreted as politically sacrificing them in the name of a bigger strategic consideration. In Israel, where the military is almost a sacred institution, such an act would have greater implications on each and every soldier who will be sent to other missions and needs to know that those who sent him to that mission stand behind him. 

Nonetheless, the flotilla was only one part of what Israelis see as a greater plan from the Turkish government to delegitimize Israel. The reasons for that stem in the rhetoric carried mainly by Prime Minister Erdoğan, which began at the famous clash between the Turkish prime minister and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos.

Many in Israel might disagree with Peres’ political conviction, but no one disagrees that he is considered to be a man who represents peace. Therefore, when Erdoğan told Peres “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill,” Israelis recognized that as an attack on the most well-known symbol of peace and not on Israeli government policies. Furthermore, in times when Israel is becoming more isolated and criticized internationally, Turkish policies are perceived as another piece of the historic Israeli-Arab/Islamic existential conflict. Consequently, Israelis think an apology would first harm Israeli deterrence power in front of current strategic threats, and, second, would not end the crisis since Turkey’s real intention is to continue and weaken Israel. 

It seems that Israeli perception of the Israeli-Turkish crisis originates in common Israeli societal values and historic Jewish thinking as well as regional geo-strategic developments. Many Israelis who are not aware of the domestic Turkish political arena are convinced that the developments that brought the deterioration of relations were made on religious and/or strategically planned Turkish policies. 

When Prime Minister Erdoğan said “Turkey’s problem is with Israel’s government, not its people,” he should have realized that Turkey definitely has a problem with the Israeli people, who have a direct effect on the way the Israeli government acts. For decision makers it is clear that in the unstable, changing Middle Eastern environment, restoring relations and stability will be in the strategic interest of both countries. Beyond diplomatic efforts, both societies should begin a process of reconciliation. It starts with getting to know the other’s point of view.

Arik Segal is a conflict management professional. He promotes and directs Track II diplomacy initiatives.