Sunday 10 July 2011

Why Turkey and Israel Still Wish to be Friends

It is exactly a year ago that relations between Israel and Turkey hit one of their all-time lowest points. This was caused by the events of the first Gaza flotilla, which left 9 Turkish citizens dead aboard the Marvi Marmara protest ship. Turkey pointed a finger at Israel and the IDF accusing them of the death of its citizens, and demanded an apology. The apology was not forthcoming, and Turkey promptly withdrew its ambassador from Israel. Diplomatic relations between the two countries went into a serious decline impacting on military, economic and political cooperation.

In the space of one short year, the situation has changed quite dramatically. The demand for the apology over the deaths of its citizens has not been dropped by Turkey (yet). A dialogue has been taking place between the two countries over the past few weeks that indicates a serious intent to somehow find a way to get the diplomatic relations back on track. To some, it may seem strange that things can change so radically over the short space of 12 months. There are, however, a number of strong drivers behind each country's intention to repair the damaged relationship.

Turkey's relationship with Israel has been driven to a great extent by its relationships with other countries, particularly those in the west. Turkey has had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the west. On the one hand, Turkey has been castigated by the west over its actions in northern Cyprus and has also been frustrated in its efforts to join the European Union over many years. On the other hand, Turkey has been an important ally for the USA and NATO in maintaining a military counter-balance to the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in former times. More recently, Turkey has provided the USA with assistance in countering the new threat from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Like in days of old when the Ottomans were able to capitalise on the critical location of Constantinople as a bridge between east and west, so it is that the modern-day Turks are able to take advantage of their strategic location to good effect in order to create and maintain key relationships.

For Israel, relations with Turkey have an equal level of ambivalence. Turkey, with its population of over 70 million, is one of the largest countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although Turkey has no official state religion, over 97% of its citizens are Muslims. As a result, when it comes to matters relating to Israel in the international community, there is always a very good chance that Turkey will side with other Muslim countries in their opposition to Israel. It is notable that Turkey is not an Arab country. Despite their common religion, there are many cultural differences and clashes between Turkey and Middle Eastern Arab countries. It is these cracks which Israel has exploited to good effect in the past, to build economic, political and military relations with Turkey.

Following numerous unsuccessful attempts on Turkey's part to gain entry to the Europe Union, the country's government decided to seek friendships elsewhere. This happened at a time when there was a huge upsurge in Islamic religious fundamentalism in Turkey, along with similar trends elsewhere in the Islamic world. This pushed Turkey's attentions eastward and southward towards its Islamic friends and neighbours. It has spent much time over the past few years building stronger ties with Syria, and particularly with Iran. This all seemed like a solid strategic step to take until the "Arab Spring" swept through the Middle East. Turkey has been forced to all but abandon its ties with Syria and, with it, its friendly links with Iran. Once again, Turkey is looking for friends. Under this set of circumstances, repairing its damaged links with Israel appear an attractive option. Not only is there a solid economic and political advantage for Turkey in bilateral links with Israel, there is also the important link that Israel has to the USA. This could, in turn, help to build bridges to other western countries. Closer links with Turkey could equally be an advantage for Israel. Turkey presents Israeli goods and services with an economic opportunity. In addition, Turkey could act as a bridge between Israel and the Islamic world.

Events over the past few months have weakened Turkey's position, and possibly forced the Turks to be more flexible in backing down from established positions in order to repair its relationship with Israel. The commission appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to examine the events of the Gaza flotilla, is ready to report its findings. Former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and his colleagues on the commission have had access to a great deal of material, including video footage taken by both sides, which is connected to the events that took place on the Marvi Marmara. Palmer's report strongly supports Israel's rights under international law to defend her sea borders. Although criticising the IDF for excessive violence on the Marvi Marmara, Palmer does not support Turkey's demand for an apology from Israel. Palmer additionally praises Israel's internal investigation into the events as being independent and professional. On the contrary, Turkey's investigation is criticised for being politically motivated and unprofessional. The points in the report which do not support Turkey's claims and positions are effectively forcing Turkey to compromise to a greater degree than Israel in the negotiations to reach agreement.

It was hoped that the two sides would have reached agreement by the end of last week to allow Palmer to publish his report against the backdrop of two countries having reconciled. The agreement was not reached, and the publication of the report has been delayed in the hope that agreement can still be reached in the near future. The longer it takes to reach the agreement, the more likely it is that Turkey will be forced to compromise even further. For Turkey, not reaching agreement is probably less attractive than having to make the painful concessions necessary to reach the agreement.

Although I cannot envisage thousands of Israeli tourists filling Turkish holiday resorts in the near future as once was the case, this prospect does not seem very far away. Both countries have substantial interest to repair the damage done, and to renew their relationship to mutual advantage. I find it difficult to contemplate the possibility that either of the countries will not do almost all that is required to bring things back from the brink. Having said that, I believe that Turkey will be forced to back down from its demand for an apology. This will almost definitely not be delivered by Israel.

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