TORONTO — Turkey values its relationship with Israel and hopes that current mutual tensions can be resolved amicably, the Turkish consul general in Toronto declared last week.
“Turkey has the will to make peace with everyone,” Ali Riza Guney said in an interview. “That is why our foreign minister has set the target of having ‘zero problems with neighbours.’ So why should Israel be different? We had good ties with [Israel] until the end of 2008.”
Guney, who served in Turkey’s consulate in Jerusalem from 2005 to 2009, added, “Turkey and Israel had strong, multi-dimensional and friendly relations which we valued.”
The state and people-to-people ties cut across political, economic, military, scientific and cultural lines, he said.
In a reference to the influx of Sephardi Jews into the Ottoman Empire after the Spanish Inquisition, he noted, “The deeply rooted bonds between the Turkish and Jewish people date even further, five centuries before the Israeli state was established.”
Turkey, the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, upgraded relations with Israel in a wide range of fields after the 1993 Oslo accords.
In 2000, Israel and Turkey signed a free trade agreement, and in 2005, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Israel. Two years later, Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed Turkey’s parliament. Turkey served as a mediator in Israel’s four rounds of talks with Syria in 2008.
After Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in early 2009, Erdogan harshly criticized Israel.
Bilateral relations further deteriorated in May 2010 when Israeli naval commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara – a Turkish ship in an international flotilla trying to break Israel’s siege of Gaza – and killed eight Turkish nationals and one ethnic Turkish American citizen.
Calling the raid an act of aggression, Turkey demanded an official apology, compensation and the lifting of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since 2007.
In the aftermath of these events, Turkey recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv, while Turkish and Israeli diplomats tried in vain to defuse the situation. According to Guney, agreements were reached, but Israel did not implement them.
Tension was already high before Israel’s raid. In a diplomatic incident in Jerusalem in January 2010, Israel’s deputy foreign minister publicly rebuked Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, resulting in an Israeli apology to Turkey.
Last September, after the United Nations released a report saying that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is justified but that Israel used “excessive” force aboard the Mavi Marmara, Turkey expelled Israel’s envoy in Ankara.
Recalling Israel’s raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, Guney said, “This attack on civilians left an indelible mark in the hearts and minds of the Turkish people. The fact that the attack came from a friendly country increased the indignation further.”
Asked why Turkey had not prevented the Mavi Marmara from leaving port, he said, “The Turkish government tried to dissuade the Turkish participants not to take part in the convoy, but it did not work.”
Guney, who assumed his current position in Toronto last month after heading the Middle East department in the foreign ministry, said Turkey has proven its willingness to improve relations with Israel.
“We continued manifesting a constructive approach by holding talks with the Israeli authorities to overcome the problem and by demanding simply an apology and compensation,” he said.
Israel apologized to Egypt last summer after accidentally killing five Egyptian troops following a terrorist attack in the Negev desert. “I think it is fair enough to expect from Israel the same maturity to be displayed for Turkey.”
Guney, whose previous postings included Saudi Arabia and Germany, said Turkey attaches “great importance” to its relations with Israel. “Especially in the midst of historic events unfolding around us in the Middle East and North Africa, we need to be in tandem more than ever.”
Noting that his nation has traditionally had an “unwavering and friendly” position on Israel, he said Turkey has never questioned Israel’s right to exist and lent Israel legitimacy by being the first Muslim state to recognize it. “I sincerely believe that once Israel takes the necessary steps and stops its intransigent approach, the normalization of our relations will be the natural outcome.”
Guney emphasized that Turkey wishes to be Israel’s friend. “Our relations and friendship had stood the test of time. They had always emerged strong and enduring. And we do not wish this to change. Turkey and Israel live in a tough neighbourhood. It is not very wise to stay apart while there are tectonic changes in the Middle East.”
Referring to the diplomatic stalemate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Guney said, “If Israel pursues peaceful policies in the region, then the pace of improvement in our relations will be unprecedented.”
Claiming that the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians have isolated Israel, Guney said that Israeli settlements in the territories and the siege of Gaza are incompatible with achieving a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Israel has “legitimate security concerns,” he said. “But to address those concerns, it is imperative to push the peace process forward. Israel needs to see that it will only be possible to ensure real security by building a real peace.
“The only way to reach a viable and lasting peace is through a two-state solution. Israel needs to live and prosper within secure borders, and this target can only be reached by the formation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.”
Suggesting that Turkey’s bilateral ties with Israel can be upgraded in the future, Guney said, “We have to act with utmost care not to stain the collective memory of past generations in both countries. If Israeli politicians have the same understanding and vision, I believe it should not be a matter for them to apologize and compensate.”
He said Erdogan is antagonistic to neither Israel nor Jews. “Is it fair to label someone ‘hostile to Israel’ simply because he does not agree with the policies pursued toward the Palestinians?”
Elaborating on this point, Guney said, “Prime Minister Erdogan has stressed that antisemitism is a crime against humanity.” And, he went on to say that Erdogan was the first Turkish prime minister who paid a visit to (Turkey’s) chief rabbi.