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The Urgency of Restoring the Israel-Turkey Relationship

Commentary, 3 December 2010
Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Israel-Turkey relations have steadily deteriorated since the 2009 war in Gaza and have remained at an impasse since the flotilla incident. If Turkey wants to be a global player, both economically and diplomatically, it must become Israel's ally once again.

Israel-Turkey relations have steadily deteriorated since the 2009 war in Gaza and have remained at an impasse since the flotilla incident. If Turkey wants to be a global player, both economically and diplomatically, it must become Israel's ally once again.

By David Martin Abrahams, Vice President, RUSI

 Tayyip Erdogan and Simon Peres c World Economic Forum

 A Blossoming Relationship on the Rocks

Historically Israel has enjoyed one of its strongest partnerships with Turkey. In 1949, the government in Ankara became the first from a Muslim-majority country to formally recognise the new Jewish democratic state and to strike up bilateral relations. Since then the two nations have built up a rich and mutually rewarding partnership. The Israeli government has extended intelligence sharing to Turkey, provided strategic advice to its armed forces, and sold it weapons. Yet it is not just military co-operation that has bound the two countries: there is a thriving trade relationship in the private sector as well. The free trade agreement the countries signed in 2000 was a huge spur to economic development. In 2009, there were $2.5 billion in sales transacted between the countries, with metals, petrochemicals and textiles particularly key trade sectors. A lively tourist industry also sprang up, with Antalya, the Turkish resort on the Mediterranean, becoming a favourite for Israeli holidaymakers.

And yet after the 2009 war in Gaza the relationship between the Israeli and Turkish governments declined rapidly. Following this year's Israeli commando interception of the so-called Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla' launched from Turkish waters, relations seemed to have declined near terminally with the Turkish government withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv amidst a flurry of overheated rhetoric from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Overlapping Goals

Turkey should be a natural ally of Israel. Its secular constitutional democracy and traditionally Western-oriented foreign policy which encompasses membership of NATO, alliance with the United States and plans to join the European Union, demonstrate that the countries have many liberal values in common. Yet some Secularist Turks have expressed alarm about what they perceive as Erdogan's Islamicising agenda pandering to the more extremist constituencies in his country.

This concern is reflected amongst Israeli policymakers. The recent leaking of US State Department cables confirm Israeli fears of an Eastern shift in Turkish foreign policy that involves a growing antipathy towards Israel.[1] The relationship has become so bad that the Israeli Ambassador is reported to have said that Prime Minister Erdogan is a 'fundamentalist' and 'hates us religiously'.[2]

After decades apparently remaining aloof from Arab politics, Ankara in recent years has seemed to be proactively positioning itself as a power broker in the region. The recent leaking of the US State Department cables also suggest that Israeli and US policymakers are not happy with this role. Nevertheless, iIt could and should have an important part to play. Its relations with Iran and Hamas mean that it can open channels of communication unavailable to other players in the peace process. The Turkish offer of peacekeeping troops in Gaza in 2009 was sensible: the ability to talk to all sides should make them credible for such a future role if open warfare should break out again. Likewise their achievement in bringing together Israel and Syria in 2009 for their first direct talks in years was an important accomplishment. However, to build upon these steps Turkey must re-open its diplomatic relationship with Israel. Without this, nothing else is possible.

This is also the confirmed view of the United States. Senator John Kerry, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Turkey in early November as part of a major tour of the Middle East. He stated categorically that in order to play a large role in the Middle East peace process Turkey must restore relations with Israel. Iran has stated that it is open to the idea of holding new negotiations over its nuclear programme on Turkish soil. Hawks in the US congress are already sceptical of this idea, particularly because of their anger over Turkey voting in the summer against additional UN sanctions on Iran. If Turkey continues to ostracise Israel - Mr Erdogan has recently threatened to boycott international summits if Prime Minister Netanyahu attends ‑ it has little chance of being accepted by the Western powers as an intermediary.

An Insurmountable Hurdle?

Israel and Turkey seem to be stuck at an impasse over the flotilla incident with neither side prepared to compromise. We must hope that the enquiry set up at the UN by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon provides a narrative that will help resolve rather than inflame the tensions when it finally publicises its findings. In the immediate aftermath of the spat, most commercial business between Turkey and Israel attempted to continue as usual, although tourism took an immediate hit. The longer the impasse continues the more dangerous the damage to the economic relationship becomes. This must urgently be avoided: When goods cross borders armies tend not to and when trade becomes blocked by politics all bets are off.

The Turkish government ought to consider its future as it ponders its relationship with Israel. The second predominantly Muslim country to formally recognise Israel, in 1950, just one year after Turkey, was Iran. Since Iran fell tragically under the control of Islamist radicals implacably opposed to Israel's right to exist, it has withered as a global pariah seemingly set upon a dangerous path to international conflict. It would be a calamity if Turkey took further steps along a similar road to ruin. But by finding the courage and common sense for diplomacy with Israel they can help themselves, and they may just be able to aid Iran on its tentative steps to rehabilitation as well.

*The views expressed in this article are the author's and not necessarily that of RUSI*

NOTES

[1] Zaman newspaper, 1 December 2010 http://www.todayszaman.com/news-228388-wikileaks-israel-tells-us-it-has-bad-feeling-about-turkey.html

[2] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=israeli-ambassador-due-to-leave-in-summer-2010-11-30

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