The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced Dec. 3 that Turkey has sent two firefighting aircraft to Israel at the behest of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The aircraft will assist Israeli efforts to extinguish huge fires in the Carmel Mountains, outside the northern city of Haifa, that have claimed 41 lives so far. Turkey’s assistance — as the first country that responded to Israel’s call to other countries to send aid — quickly led to friendly gestures by Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shortly after Turkish planes arrived in Haifa, Netanyahu called Erdogan and expressed Israel’s gratefulness for the help and said he was “sure that this will be a gateway to improving relations between the two countries.” Erdogan said Turkey was ready to provide additional assistance if needed, including treatment for the injured in Turkish hospitals. In a distinct gesture to Turkey, Netanyahu also visited Turkish planes at the Haifa airport.
Though the two exchanged kind words, thorny issues remain to be settled between the two countries after the Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla in May , during which nine Turkish nationals were killed. After his phone conversation with Netanyahu, Erdogan told media that Turkey’s demands for an apology and compensation have yet to be fulfilled by Israel to restore the ties, implying that this humanitarian assistance may not mean a quick improvement in relations. Indeed, Turkish President Abdullah Gul was quoted the same day as saying that “it is not possible for us to forget” the flotilla incident and that “Israel has lost the friendship of Turkey and of Turkish citizens.” But Turkey’s willingness to make its assistance public and Netanyahu’s positive response are likely signs that the two countries are trying to divert their relationship away from its current course, which they see as harmful to their interests.
STRATFOR has received indications that Erdogan is aware that strained ties with Israel are not in Turkey’s best interests. An Israeli public relations campaign to portray the flotilla activists as Islamist militants tarnished Turkey’s image in the West, especially in Washington. Turkey’s commitment to the West was increasingly questioned before the NATO Lisbon Summit, which was one of the main factors behind Turkey’s acceptance of a NATO ballistic missile defense system on its soil. Moreover, with parliamentary elections in June 2011, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying not to give the opposition a tool to discredit the government over strained U.S. ties on one hand, while on the other making headway in its relationship with Israel that it can portray as concessions to satisfy conservative religious voters. STRATFOR was told that Turkish diplomats have been directly involved in backchannel talks with their Israeli counterparts to this end.
Israel, too, has geopolitical imperatives not to lose Turkey as an ally. Erdogan’s recent visit to Lebanon, where he increased anti-Israeli rhetoric and held talks with Hezbollah officials, likely rang alarm bells for Netanyahu’s government. Israel must prevent Turkey from permanently joining the anti-Israel camp at any cost. Such a threat has become even more critical as Iran expands its influence in the region and political stability in Egypt becomes more questionable because of pending issues of succession .
That said, even though both countries have an interest in mending ties, neither government wants to appear as the side that backs down, mostly for domestic political reasons. But Turkey’s humanitarian assistance to Israel could lead to intensified backchannel talks, which in turn may start renewed efforts — possibly with U.S. involvement — to reach a preliminary understanding by the time the U.N.-led investigation committee for the flotilla raid announces its suggestions.
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