Turkey’s alliance with Israel crumbles
Surveying the broken landscape of Israel’s bilateral ties with Turkey since May 2010, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara and Turkey responded by recalling its ambassador in Tel Aviv, an Israeli diplomat based in Istanbul struck an upbeat tone.
“Look, we’ve had our ups and downs,” he said, implicitly referring to Turkey’s decision in 1981 to downgrade relations with Israel after it formalized its annexation of eastern Jerusalem. “We’re at a low point now, but we hope to come out of it and strengthen our relations.”
The diplomat added, “There is a strategic value in our relationship. As democracies, we have mutual interests and a shared desire for stability in this region. There is a will on both sides to resolve this issue. Where there is a will, there is a way.”
In Ankara, a Turkish diplomat in charge of Turkey’s relations with Israel sounded a hopeful note as well. “Our bilateral relations today are not what they once were. Turkey and Israel contributed to peace and stability in the Middle East, but when Israel’s policies ran counter to these objectives, our relations deteriorated.”
Turkey’s political bonds with Israel, which morphed into something of an alliance in the wake of the 1990s Oslo peace process, have crumbled, having been sent into a downward spiral since Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2009. Israel’s incursion was sharply condemned by Turkey’s outspoken prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who likened it to “state terrorism.”
He widened the rift by insulting Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, while Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, stoked further tensions by publicly humiliating Turkey’s envoy in Israel. In the wake of Israel’s raid on the Mavi Marmara, Turkey demanded a formal apology, reparations for Turkish lives lost and a lifting of the blockade.
Last September, following the release of a United Nations fact-finding report on the Mavi Marmara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the clash on the high seas “a crime against humanity.” He proceeded to downgrade Turkey’s relations with Israel to the second-secretary level and cancelled all military agreements with Israel.
Subsequently, in four rounds of talks held in Europe, Turkish and Israeli diplomats wrestled with the issue. Turkey claims an agreement was reached in which Israel would have accommodated Turkey’s demands for an apology and compensation. But due to “disagreements within the Israeli council of ministers, this agreement could not be implemented,” Davutoglu said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, encouraged by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, declared that an apology would not be forthcoming, even though Israel has issued four apologies to Turkey in the last five years.
In 2007, Israel apologized for having violated Turkish airspace in the bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor. In 2009, Israel issued an apology after Israeli Gen. Avi Mizrachi accused Turkey of murdering Armenians and suppressing its Kurdish citizens. In 2010, Israel apologized for the mistreatment of Turkey’s ambassador and for the “misunderstanding” in Davos. Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse.
Last month, Turkey’s chief prosecutor charged several high-ranking Israeli military officials, including the former chief of staff, with ordering the intentional killing of Turks on the Mavi Marmara. Before this announcement, Turkey scrambled F-16 fighters to confront Israeli aircraft reportedly violating Turkish Cyprus’ airspace and then summoned Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Ankara, Yosef Levi Sfari, to explain the intrusion.
Turkey maintains that the Greek Cypriot government has no right to sign oil and gas drilling agreements with Israel to the detriment of the Turkish Cypriot government. Turkey, having been increasingly assertive in the Middle East of late, disputes Israeli and Greek Cypriot territorial claims to offshore resources.
Amid the rhetoric, the United States’ ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, recently called on both sides to cool passions and mend fences. It is a tall order, given Turkey’s visceral reaction to the Mavi Marmara affair. Turkey, for example, has restricted the use of its airspace to Israeli cargo planes and cut back on cultural exchanges.
As far as Israel is concerned, Erdogan, the leader of a socially conservative Islamic government, is the real problem. He has embraced Hamas, urged the United Nations to impose sanctions on Israel, branded recent Israeli air strikes in Gaza as a “massacre,” decried Netanyahu’s government as the “worst” in Israel’s history, lambasted Lieberman as a “despicable” person and described Israel’s nuclear arsenal as a threat to the Middle East. Last week, he accused Israel of mistreating Palestinians, “our brothers,” in Gaza.
Israel, nonetheless, wants to improve relations with Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO. But Israel’s refusal to issue an official apology for the Mavi Marmara incident looms as a formidable obstacle. When asked whether Israel is prepared to apologize, an Israeli diplomat in Istanbul replied, “That’s for negotiations. A compromise could be the answer. Israel has never shied away from compromises.”
In Ankara, a Turkish diplomat said, “We are offering Israel a way out of this crisis. Turkey will completely normalize its relations with Israel if Israel issues an apology. Turkey’s demands are clear. The future of our relations depends on what steps Israel takes.”
The Mavi Marmara affair, he observed, left an “indelible mark in the minds and hearts of the Turkish people, and the fact that it came from a friendly power increased the indignation.” Reiterating the abiding principle of Turkish foreign policy, he said, “We want zero problems with our neighbours. Our motto is, ‘Peace at home and peace abroad.’”
He dismissed the notion that Turkey has distanced itself from Israel to curry favour with Arab states and the Palestinians. As he put it, “We don’t need to do this to strengthen Turkey’s position as a champion of the Palestinian cause. We’re trying to develop good relations with everyone. We don’t design our policy at the expense of anyone.”
Rifat Bali, a historian, claims that the honeymoon era in Israeli-Turkish relations has passed and that even an Israeli apology would not be enough for Turkey.
“The Turkish-Israeli alliance was an anomaly. Before the 1990s, it did not exist. Things are back to normal now. The Turkish military drove this alliance, and today, the generals don’t have a say in it. Turkey needed Israel for two things: weapons and lobbying against the Armenian lobby in Washington. Today, Turkey is more interested in expanding its influence in the Middle East.”
Sami Kohen, a foreign affairs columnist, believes that both sides share responsibility for the Mavi Marmara fiasco. “Israel made a mistake opening fire on the Mavi Marmara and using excessive force,” said Kohen, who urges Israel to apologize. “Israel could have seized the ship instead. Turkey is to be blamed for not discouraging the Mavi Marmara to leave port.”
Absent the Mavi Marmara incident, he noted, Israel’s bilateral relations with Turkey could have been “quite normal.” At the end of the day, the Mavi Marmara incident was a historic watershed, having been the first direct clash between Turkey and Israel.
Exuding pessimism, Kohen said, “Israel has lost Turkey for quite some time to come.”
This column appears in the June 14 print issue of The CJN