The last few years have seen Ankara's regional role in the Middle East become severly diminished as its relations with one neighbor after another went downhill. But could the current war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel offer Turkey a chance to reassert its regional relevance?
The promise of that happening is certainly there, especially after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was included in a mini-summit this past Saturday in Paris that brought him together with Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Qatar, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. in a failed effort to create a ceasefire in Gaza.
The inclusion of Turkey made certain sense, since -- like Qatar -- it is has been a strong supporter of Hamas in recent years and is considered to have an open line to the organization's leadership. Ankara has also been showing its support for Gaza in material terms, recently sending some 17 tons of medicine to the besieged area and also providing funding for fuel for Gaza's only power plant.
These days, the words related to Middle East diplomacy that probably inspire the least amount of confidence are "Israel and Turkey near repairing alliance" (as the Wall Street Journal suggested the other day).
Since a Washington-brokered breakthrough last March, which led to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling his Turkish counterpart to apologize for the deaths caused during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, there has been little movement in terms of actual reconciliation. Although there have been various reports over the last year that the two sides are close to patching things up, with only the matter of how much Israel will pay in compensation to the Mavi Marmara victims' families left to be resolved, these have all proven to be erroneous.
But the latest suggestion that the former allies may indeed be close to restoring ties was different, considering that it came from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu himself. “There has recently been a momentum and new approach in compensation talks. We could say that most of the differences have been removed recently in these discussions,” Davutoglu said in a Feb. 9 television interview.
Today marks the third anniversary of the Mavi Marmara incident, an Israeli military raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza that resulted in the death of nine Turks and in the shattering of the once-close ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
In March, Turkey and Israel -- with American help -- started what looks like will be a drawn-out reconciliation process. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized for "operational mistakes" made during the incident that resulted in the loss of life, meeting one of the three conditions set forth by Ankara for diplomatic relations to be restored. The two countries are now working on the second condition, compensation for the victims, which is where they seem to be getting stuck. As Ha'aretz recently reported, Israel is offering to pay $100,000 to each victim's family, while Turkey is demanding $1 million (Turkish officials have denied the Israeli report).
Things will likely get more complicated in terms of the third condition, which, as set forth by Erdogan, is Israel's lifting of its blockade on Gaza. During his recent visit to Washington, the Turkish leader again stated that relations with Israel could only be restarted once this condition has been met. So far, there has no been any indication from either side about how they plan to deal with this complicating issue beyond some vague statements made by Turkish officials about Israel taking "positive" steps to improve conditions in Gaza.
Perhaps the only tangible achievement of President Barack Obama's visit to Israel last month was getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call his Turkish counterpart and issue an apology (of sorts) for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, helping set in motion what is hoped will be a restoration of diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey.
But there are some troubling signs popping up that should cause concern about where this incipient Turkish-Israeli rapprochement might be heading. In an Istanbul press conference yesterday, several Turkish survivors of the military attack on the Mavi Marmara said they would continue to pursue legal action against Israel in Turkish courts, despite the Israeli apology and offer for compensation -- which were made with the expectation that legal proceedings connected with the incident would be dropped. Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation that was scheduled to come to Turkey this week to work out the compensation issue has delayed its trip by a few weeks, supposedly because of scheduling conflicts.
Despite the recent bleak assessments made by certain analysts, Turkey and Israel -- with intense American help -- have managed to pull off an early spring surprise and set in motion a process to restore their currently frayed relations and end a three-year drama that ultimately served nobody's interests.
Earlier today, towards the end of American President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his Turkish counterpart and issued an apology for the deaths that took place due to "operational mistakes" when Israeli forces raid the Turkish Mavi Marmara Gaza aid ship some three years ago. In joint statements released by the two prime ministers' offices, the two countries said they are working out on an agreement for compensation/non-liability and will work together on improving the humanitarian situation in the "Palestinian territories." With this formula, it would appear that Israel has satisfied Turkey's demands for normalizing their relations.
As noted in a recent previous post on this blog, despite their interests converging with regards to several significant issues, Turkey and the United States might not quite be in the "golden age" of relations that some folks -- in Ankara, in particular -- have claimed the two allies to be in.
Newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry's current visit to Turkey offers a good indication of the current delicate state of affairs between Ankara and Washington. The fact that Turkey is one of the first countries Kerry is visiting on his maiden voyage abroad as Secretary of State confirms that Ankara remains a crucial ally to the US. But, as Murat Yetkin points out in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News, Kerry arrives in Turkey bearing a "heavy agenda," with critical and potentially volatile issues relating to Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey-Israel relations where Ankara and Washington are not on the same page.
In a column that appeared the other day on the website of The Hill, Bulent Aras -- a Turkish academic who now directs the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affair's in-house think tank -- and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, a Washington-based analyst, describe the current state of affairs in Turkey-US relations this way:
One of the interesting questions brought up by the recent elections held in Israel is if the new government that's being created there can somehow help improve the country's still extremely strained relations with Turkey. Although Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will again be prime minister of the new government, the emergence of the centrist Yesh Atid ("There is a future") party, which will play a key role in whatever coalition Netanyahu puts together, puts forward the possibility that Israel's foreign policy could stop the rightward drift that it took under former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, something which could have a positive impact on relations with Turkey.
Writing in the Hurriyet Daily News, Tel Aviv University-based researcher Gallia Lindenstrauss takes a look at the possible Yesh Atid effect:
Yesh Atid followed the growing trend in Israel of having journalists as key party members (in comparison, there was a sharp decline in ex-army personnel who were elected). In addition to the party chair, Yair Lapid, who was a columnist and television anchorman before entering politics, another new Yesh Atid member of Parliament is the newspaper and television commentator Ofer Shelah. Shelah is notable since he helped draft the platform for security-related issues in the Yesh Atid party’s program. While these issues were not the main focus of the party’s campaign (and in general were not the key issue of the elections) they are likely to reemerge both in discussions surrounding forming a coalition government and later on.
As the crisis in Syria drags on and Turkey's security concerns become more pronounced, there have been suggestions from various quarters that Ankara might want to shore up its own interests by mending its strained ties with Israel, which have been frozen since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.
The latest such suggestion appears to have come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who reportedly pressed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a Berlin meeting the other day about patching things up with Israel. As Today's Zaman columnist Abdullah Bozkurt reports today, Erdogan told reporters after his meeting with Merkel that he told the German leaders that, along with an apology for the incident and compensation to the families of the nine Turks killed, Ankara also expects Israel lift its blockade on Gaza if it wants to restore relations with Turkey. In other words, don't expect much to happen. From Bozkurt's column:
Later on, when he shared his recollection of the meeting with reporters, Erdoğan said: “I told her that all three conditions must be fulfilled. I said to her in very clear terms that we are not open to options like agreeing to a deal on an apology and compensation while discarding the lifting of embargo condition.”
Two years after the tragic Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos who stormed a ship attempting to break Israel's blockade on Gaza, Turkish-Israel relations remain frozen. Ankara maintains that only an Israeli apology, compensation to the families of the victims of the lifting of the Gaza blockade will allow it to restore relations. Israel, on the other hand, is ready to express its "regret" about the incident and pay some compensation, but is most certainly not ready to apologize or to consider changing its Gaza policy in order to appease Turkey.
Still, some recent reports would indicate that, at least on the Israeli side, there is a desire to break out of the impasse (or at least create the impression that such a desire exists). Although it's been clear for some time that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and some top military leaders believe apologizing to Turkey would make strategic sense, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far balked at doing this. But as veteran Israeli journalist David Horovitz writes in The Times of Israel, the news website he edits, this may be changing. Writes Horovitz:
As US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Israel on Tuesday night, the Iranian nuclear drive was, as ever, high on the agenda for his talks with Israeli leaders. So too, unsurprisingly, was the bloodshed in Syria, and concerns over President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, or other terror groups.
Two years after Turkey-Israel relations broke down because of the Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists during a botched raid of an aid ship heading to Gaza, the two countries remain estranged with little indication that a breakthrough in the diplomatic impasse between them is forthcoming. The Turkish government continues to demand that an apology for the event be given and that compensation to the families of those killed be offered. Although Israel appears ready to pay compensation, it has refused to apologize, seeking instead to express its "regret" over the incident.
That said, there are still some signs of life left in the relationship. Israeli tourists, who once flocked to Turkey but then stopped coming in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, are slowly returning to Turkish resorts. Trade relations between Turkey and Israel, meanwhile, have continued to flourish, despite the tension, leading some to suggest that it's in the economic sphere where the two countries might be able to find a "fresh start."