Pragmatism May Drive Israeli-Turkish Ties

Israeli-Turkish relations are likely to feature prominently during Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, DC. Turkish and Israeli officials are engaged in talks to work out Israeli compensation to the families killed and injured during the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. These talks are part of a U.S.-brokered rapprochement between the two countries, which began with an official apology by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Erdoğan in late March for “any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury” aboard the Mavi Marmara. This hasn’t been an easy exercise; a major challenge for Turkey comes from finding a balance between the domestic debate over the lifting of the blockade of Gaza and Turkey’s own compensation issues for the Kurdish population on the one hand and Turkey’s pressing national security needs against the deteriorating situation in Syria on the other.

The families of the Mavi Marmara victims have repeatedly objected to compensation talks until the Gaza Strip blockade is lifted. The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH), the Turkish NGO which organized the Mavi Marmara trip, and the hard-core Islamists who partly constitute the electoral basis of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) also publicly support their position. Recently, they held a major public meeting promoting the idea of “first lifting the blockade” and took a critical view of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s involvement in compensation talks with Israel. Interestingly, Erdoğan chose to remain silent on the issue and allow Arınç to face the criticism on his own. Arınç’s position and Erdoğan’s silence should be viewed in the context of Turkey’s own domestic compensation issues.

As much as the Turkish government in recent times has been trying to address the Kurdish problem and reach a political solution, the three decades’ old conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has taken a heavy toll on civilians. It has led to the injury and death of many civilians, loss and destruction of property, and the internal displacement of over 1 million civilians. Long discussions related to compensation for these individuals finally culminated in the Turkish government’s passing of a compensation law in 2004. The law aimed to facilitate the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and compensate them for their losses. Yet, critics of the implementation of this law say it falls short of sufficiently compensating the economic losses and emotional pain IDPs have suffered. Furthermore, critics cite high rejection rates among those applying for compensation and a failure to formally recognize victims and acknowledge any wrongdoings toward the individuals as shortfalls of the compensation law.

A more recent example is the Uludere incident where 34 civilians of Kurdish ethnicity were mistaken for PKK terrorists and killed in an airstrike by the Turkish military in the southeastern corner of Turkey in December 2011. Although the Turkish government has offered close to $70,000 in compensation for each victim, families of the victims have refused to accept the offer until a full investigation takes place, those responsible for the attack are brought to justice, and an official apology is issued by the Turkish state. Such an apology has not so far been issued, prompting criticism in Turkish media outlets over the importance placed on an Israeli apology for the victims of the Mavi Marmara while the victims of Uludere wait for an apology and compensation from the Turkish government.

As compensation talks with Israel continue, the real challenge will lie in the Turkish government’s ability to soften the position of the İHH, hard-liners within AK Party and the victims’ families toward the Gaza blockade while keeping an eye on Turkey’s immediate geopolitical interests. Shifts in the balance of power in the region brought about by the Arab Awakening and most recently the Syrian crisis is pushing Turkey to re-evaluate its position toward Israel. Pragmatism on the part of Turkey and Israel in resolving their differences will be of greater benefit to addressing the growing security and humanitarian challenges resulting from the Syrian crisis as well as improving the welfare of the Palestinians in Gaza than if negotiations between the two countries failed. As Prime Minister Erdoğan prepares for his visit to Washington, DC, this week, the carnage provoked by two car bombs that exploded in the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı on Saturday will surely be a stark reminder of the need for this kind of pragmatism. U.S. President Barack Obama should seize the occasion of the visit to promote such pragmatism but also be willing to listen to Erdoğan’s deep-seated and genuine frustration with the situation in Syria. An empathetic ear on the part of Obama may go a long way in not only helping to improve Israeli-Turkish relations, a major U.S. objective, but also start cooperating in concrete terms to address an ever-expanding Syrian crisis.