Turbulence in Turkey–Israel Relations Raises Doubts Over Reconciliation Process

Seven months have passed since Israel officially apologized to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010, in which nine Turks were killed by Israeli fire. What seemed, at the time, to be a diplomatic breakthrough, capable of setting into motion a reconciliation process between America’s two greatest allies in the region, has been frustrated by a series of spiteful interactions.

The Turkish-Israeli alliance of the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s was viewed by senior U.S. officials as an anchor of stability in a changing region. The relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem served vital U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and so it was therefore a U.S. priority to restore dialogue between the two former allies-turned-rivals. The Obama administration, throughout both terms, has made a continuous effort to rebuild the relationship and was ultimately successful in setting the stage for the Israeli apology and the Turkish acceptance of that apology. The U.S. was not the only party that stood to gain from reconciliation; both Turkey and Israel have many incentives for normalizing relations. For Turkey, the reestablishment of a dialogue with Israel has four main potential benefits: It would allow for greater involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, it would provide greater opportunity for information sharing on the developments of the Syrian civil war allowing Turkey to have a more comprehensive perspective, it would also provide more economic opportunities for Turkey especially with regard to cooperation in the field of natural gas (following Israel’s High Court of Justice recent ruling that paves the way toward exports of natural gas), and finally it would remove an irritant from Turkey’s relations with the United States. In turn, Israel would benefit from the reestablishment of dialogue in three major ways: the rebuilding of relations between senior Turkish and Israeli officials would facilitate intelligence sharing and help to gain a more complete picture of the Syrian crisis, Israel would have the opportunity to contain delegitimization efforts in the Muslim and Arab worlds, and Israel may be able to rejoin NATO related activities and maneuvers.

Despite these enticements, in recent weeks a series of news stories and revelations have put the Turkish-Israeli relationship, yet again, in the international spotlight, raising doubts whether reconciliation between the two countries is at all possible at this time. As the Obama administration struggles to deal with the fallout of allegations that the NSA has tapped the office and cellular phones of Western European leaders and as it focuses on more pressing issues in the Middle East, namely the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, the Syrian crisis, Egypt and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it finds itself with little time to chaperone the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation process. Nevertheless, despite tensions, direct talks are reportedly being held between senior Turkish and Israeli officials in an effort to reach a compensation agreement in the near future.

The Israeli apology and Turkish acceptance, orchestrated by Barack Obama during his trip to the region in March 2013, was an essential first step in a long process of reconciliation, aimed at normalizing relations between the two countries after a four year hiatus in their relationship. The next step was an agreement between the two sides in which Israel was to pay compensation to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara. Several rounds of talks between senior Turkish and Israeli representatives were reportedly held during the spring of 2013 in Ankara, Jerusalem and Washington, but to no avail. Disagreements over the amount of compensation to be paid by Israel were reported, but later, in July, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Arinc clarified that money was not the issue. He stated that the problem lay in Israel’s refusal to acknowledge that the payment was a result of its “wrongful act.” Arinc added that another point of contention was Turkey’s demand that Israel cooperate in improving the living conditions of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Arinc emphasized that only when these two conditions were met could the countries move forward to discuss the specific amount of compensation.

The shadow cast over negotiations by Arinc’s comments was darkened by a string of comments made by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan against Israel. First, he blamed the “interests lobby” – perhaps a reference to the so-called “Israel Lobby” — for the large protests that took place against him and his government in Istanbul’s Taksim square and across Turkey in June. Then, in August, Erdogan accused Israel of backing the military coup in Egypt, citing comments made in 2011 by the French Jewish philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, as proof of a long standing Israeli-Jewish plot to deny the Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt. This drew sharp Israeli criticism, notably from former Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who compared Erdogan to the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

Despite these setbacks, bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel has expanded since the official apology and the number of Israeli tourists returning to visit Turkey has risen dramatically. Yet it is clear that with such harsh rhetoric it will be difficult to effectively advance a reconciliation process. Among American, Turkish and Israeli experts, the prevailing view is that Erdogan and the AKP government, mainly due to domestic political considerations, are not interested in normalizing relations with Israel, and that the only reason Erdogan accepted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s apology was to gain favor with U.S. President Obama.

At the end of August, as the plan for a U.S. military strike in Syria gained momentum, relative calm prevailed in the relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, both focusing on preparations and plans to address the fallout of such an attack. Yet, just when it seemed that tensions were reducing, and Turkish President Gul stated that negotiations “are getting on track,” in a September interview with the Washington Post, a series of news stories and revelations injected a poisonous dimension to the already-strained ties.

In early October another round of Turkish-Israeli verbal attacks and counter-attacks was sparked by a Wall Street Journal profile of the Turkish Head of Intelligence, Hakan Fidan, which included a quote from an anonymous Israeli official stating, “It is clear he (Fidan) is not an enemy of Iran.” Shortly after came the revelation by David Ignatius in the Washington Post that quoted reliable sources that pointed to Fidan as allegedly passing the names of 10 Iranians working for the Israeli Mossad on to the Iranian intelligence in early 2012. These ten people were later arrested by the Iranian authorities. Senior Turkish officials blamed Israel for leaking the story to Ignatius and the Turkish daily, Hurriyet, reported that Fidan was considering severing ties between Turkish and Israeli intelligence agencies. Reactions in Turkey and Israel to the Ignatius story were harsh and emotional. Turkish officials denied the report while Israeli officials refrained from any public comments. The Friday edition of Yediot‘s front page headline read, “Turkish Betrayal,” and former Foreign Minister Lieberman voiced his opposition to the apology made in March; he expressed his opinion that it weakened Israel’s stance and image in the region, and he attacked Erdogan for not being interested in a rapprochement.

In recent days Prime Minister Erdogan struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that if Israel is denying involvement in the leak then Turkey must accept it. Israeli media outlets reported over the weekend that Israeli and Turkish negotiators are again trying to reach a compensation agreement. Israeli experts, quoted in these reports, view November 6 as a possible target date to end negotiations over this agreement. The logic behind this being that former Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman’s verdict is expected that day. If acquitted of corruption charges Mr. Lieberman will return to the Foreign Minister’s job and will likely try and block any attempt to reach an agreement. Turkish experts however assess that Turkey is simply not ready to move forward at this time due to domestic political constraints, as Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP are bracing for Presidential and local elections in 2014.

Notwithstanding, the next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether Turkey and Israel can move forward and finally put the Marmara incident behind them. Turkey and Israel both have separate disagreements with the U.S. – Turkey over Syria, Egypt and the Turkish decision to build a missile defense system with a Chinese firm under U.S. sanctions; Israel over the Iran nuclear issue. However, the lingering Syrian crisis and reported progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, in addition to economic considerations such as trade, tourism and above all potential cooperation on natural gas may entice both sides to proceed. Undoubtedly, a final deal will require strong U.S. support.