The Beginning of a Turkish-Israeli Rapprochement?

Since May 2010’s Mavi Marmara incident, which resulted in the killing of nine Turkish activists from Israel Defense Forces’ fire, relations between Turkey and Israel have been suspended. Two major regional developments in 2012, the lingering Syrian crisis and Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, have underscored the lack of a senior-level dialogue between Israel and Turkey. However, in the wake of the latest Gaza crisis, officials on both sides have confirmed press reports detailing recent bilateral contacts between senior Turkish and Israeli officials in Cairo and Geneva, possibly signaling a shift in the relationship.

Since 1948, Israeli-Turkish relations have been through periods of disagreement and tension, as well as periods of cooperation and understanding. Relations developed gradually over the years and eventually reached their peak in the 1990’s when the two countries forged a strategic partnership, supported and strengthened by the United States. During those years, the Turkish general staff and the Israeli defense establishment were the main proponents for an enhanced relationship between the two countries. Military cooperation and coordination with Israel fit the broader world view of the secularist Turkish defense establishment. Turkey’s military structure and posture was NATO and Mediterranean oriented, and within this framework Israel was naturally viewed as an ally. From the Israeli perspective, Israel’s defense establishment recognized Turkey’s geostrategic importance and the potential that existed for defense collaboration.

Positive relations between the two countries continued well into the first decade of the 21st century but began to slow down when Turkey experienced a new social transformation and political Islamists became the dominant political force in Turkey. The clash that ensued between the new Turkish leadership and the military elite eroded the military’s standing, coupled with a major shift in Turkish foreign policy, inevitably led to a souring in the relationship between Turkey and Israel. With the launch of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, relations began to seriously weaken, as Turkey expressed clear disapproval of Israel’s actions. Despite its efforts, the United States was not able to repair relations between the two countries. The Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 led to further decline of relations between the two.

Two and a half years have passed since the incident on board the Turkish passenger vessel, and relations between Turkey and Israel remain strained, with the two countries locked into their positions. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdoğan insists that if Israel wishes to normalize relations, it must accept three conditions: issue a formal apology over the incident; compensate the families of the nine Turks (one of them an American citizen) killed on board; and lift the naval blockade of Gaza. Not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is reportedly not willing to meet the three Turkish demands.

In recent months, Israel has made several attempts, both directly and through third parties, to find a formula that will restore the dialogue between Jerusalem and Ankara, but to no avail. Erdoğan publicly rejected these Israeli diplomatic approaches, reiterating the need to address the three conditions before further talks can ensue. As a result, bilateral ties, excluding trade, are practically at a standstill, with low level (second secretary) diplomatic representation in respective embassies in both Ankara and Tel Aviv.

Over the past year and a half, the upheaval in the Arab world has occupied the top of the Turkish foreign policy agenda. Thus, the relationship with Israel has not been a priority for the Turks, pushing Israel to invest greater efforts in developing its ties with Turkey’s rivals and neighbors, including Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania. Moreover, Turkey, previously an Israeli vacation hotspot, has experienced a substantial decline in the number of Israeli tourists.

The Turkish-Israeli relationship was not a high priority on the U.S. administration’s foreign policy agenda in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential elections. While the United States did previously engage in efforts to bridge the gap between the two countries, recently, other issues, including the 9/11 attack on the U.S.’s mission in Benghazi, Libya, the Syria crisis, and Iran’s nuclear program, have consumed the attention of U.S. policy makers dealing with the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, Erdoğan’s willingness to allow his head of intelligence to meet the head of Mossad in Cairo, and his foreign ministry’s director general to meet with Israeli Senior Envoy Ciechanover in Geneva, may seem surprising, especially considering Erdoğan’s own harsh rhetoric against Israel during the initial phases of Operation Pillar of Defense. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu explained that the meetings were aimed at finding an end to the Gaza crisis and that there would be no discussion of reconciliation so long as Israel did not address Turkey’s three previously stated conditions. Israeli officials confirmed that while the discussion in Cairo focused on Gaza, the meeting in Geneva went beyond the Gaza issue, and Israel’s envoy Ciechanover did in fact suggest possible options to address Turkey’s three stipulations.

What does all this mean?

Turkey’s recent moves can be attributed to a growing realization that it has hurt its interests and hampered its diplomatic efforts by not maintaining dialogue and open channels with Israel. This move has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt to take center stage and orchestrate, together with the United States, the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Turkey, which takes pride in facilitating diplomacy in the Middle East (as demonstrated in the 2008 Turkish-brokered Syrian-Israeli proximity peace talks), was marginalized in the latest round of negotiations on Gaza simply for having damaged its relationship with Israel.

Furthermore, as Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian crisis deepens, and as it prepares to deploy Patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey most certainly will aspire to improve intelligence cooperation with Israel. With regards to Syria, there is very little disagreement, if any, between Turkey and Israel, and cooperating on this issue could prove to be very useful and beneficial for both countries.

The possible cooperation on Syria does not mean that Turkey will drop its insistence on Israel meeting the three conditions, but it may indicate a greater inclination to show flexibility with regard to the actual wording and terms of those conditions.

Israel may be willing to be more forthcoming toward Turkey in respect to the three conditions, so long as it receives assurances that Turkey will not just pocket an Israeli apology and compensation and revert to its anti-Israel mode. Israel has its own concerns, and feels more isolated than ever before in a volatile Middle East region. Its need to rely solely on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s mediating efforts last week certainly left Israeli decision makers uneasy. Israel will likely continue to reach out to Turkey in the coming weeks, but a final decision, which may include compromises, will possibly wait until after the Israeli elections in January 2013.

One must not lose sight of the fact that the Turkey-Israel relationship has deteriorated to a low point not only because of disagreement on political issues but also because of the clash of personalities between leaders on both sides. Officials on both sides will face tough decisions in the coming year, and will likely have to go against their own constituencies and popular public sentiments in order to repair relations.

The distrust between both countries is deep and the level of animosity at the leadership level is high. While it is encouraging that they are finally communicating with one another, undoubtedly progress will require a third party presence and involvement. In this respect, the Obama administration has an important role to play. Unquestionably, a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel will serve U.S. global and regional strategic interests. The strong rapport between U.S. President Barak Obama and Erdoğan and what seems in the aftermath of the Gaza crisis as more frequent consultations between Obama and Netanyahu, can contribute to a U.S.-brokered deal between the two sides. If successful, this deal will address not only the Mavi Marmara incident and Turkish demands, but it will also lay out guidelines and a “code of conduct” for interaction between the two sides in times of war and peace and sponsor a Turkish-Israeli dialogue on regional developments and issues of mutual concern. After a long disconnect between the parties, recent interactions between the two regarding the latest Gaza crisis signal that both sides are predisposed to take another look at seriously engaging with each other again, and the United States can help make this a reality.

Perhaps this could be one of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s last missions before leaving office.