Jan 26th 2010

Turkey and Israel: Time to Rise Above the Fray

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Upon returning from an extensive trip to Turkey these past two weeks, I found my inbox flooded with commentary about the capricious nature of the current state of Turkish-Israeli relations. Many strong supporters of the bilateral relationship from both sides have found themselves questioning the future of a strategic cooperation between the Turks and the Jews that has existed for hundreds of years. A year after Israel's offensive in Gaza drove a wedge between the two governments, emotions are still overriding sound reason, causing what was recently seen to be a diplomatic breach on the verge of crisis. There is no doubt that for this relationship to resume, a series of calculated steps must be taken by both peoples who balance a delicate role between East and West in volatile neighborhood.

Throughout my many conversations with governing officials, diplomats, and notable scholars, I found a politically savvy people intent on securing Turkey's prominent role as a mediator in the region. Both Israel and Turkey recognize the necessity of the bilateral cooperation, despite the challenges and stress tests it has endured in this past year. Thus, for both Turkey and Israel to emerge from these mishaps as global players capable of overcoming erratic regional disputes, it is critical the Netanyahu and Erdogan governments show they are capable of a little more political finesse. This will include concrete steps on hard issues of security, trade, and logistics as well as a smoothing over between two publics that have become increasingly estranged. Turkey and Israel have learned that their spats for domestic consumption are being played out on a world stage. Now it is time for both countries to start acting like world leaders.

From the time Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan infamously stormed out of Davos in January 2009 telling Israel's President Peres "You know well how to kill," Israel has cried foul at a string of overtly public outbursts at Israel's expense. Repeated accusations of Israeli brutality and disregard of human life during the Gaza war seemed not only unjust to most Israelis, but they fly in the face of Hamas' repeated acts of violence over a four-year period which included more than 10,000 rockets fired against Israeli civilians. This affront continued with Turkey's adoption of Judge Goldstone's slanted report on the war in Gaza and Mr. Erdogan's visible criticism of Israel in October 2009 from Tehran, as if to show allegiance to the very regime threatening Israel's existence with its nuclear program. The most recent outburst occurred during the January visit of Lebanon's Prime Minister Hariri to Ankara, as Mr. Erdogan gained easy political points by criticizing Israel's nuclear weapons as the source of regional instability. All these incidents were seen in Israel as pandering for popularity at the expense of Israel's national security, causing Israelis to wonder if there has indeed been a shift in Ankara's strategic calculus and what might be the regional implication. Adding to this tense atmosphere were two Turkish TV series depicting Israeli soldiers as cold blooded killers, again adding to Israel's public frustration. The accumulative impact of these provocations pushed the lever of Israeli tolerance to a breaking point, especially as most Israelis see Turkey as their strongest regional ally in an ever tenuous neighborhood.

The Turkish government, on the other hand, has largely felt that as a power for stability and leadership, it has a direct role to play in outreach and aid, with the humanitarian situation in Gaza taking precedence. Many Turks felt that the scope and the consequences of the Israeli incursion into Gaza were disproportionate to Hamas' provocation, and Israel has done little to alleviate international concern. Erdogan rightly felt duped by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who visited Ankara only days before the Israeli attack on Gaza but failed to mention it to his Turkish counterpart.

Moreover, as Erdogan had invested time and political capital to mediate between Israel and Syria - and was on the verge of reaching an agreement - he felt betrayed by an Israeli government failing to live up to its end of the bargain. The relationship between the two countries was further aggravated by Israel's failure to deliver in a timely fashion drones which the Turkish military needs to combat PKK insurgents. And most recently, the continuous closure of Gaza crossings, even for Turkish humanitarian aid trucks, and Israel's unwillingness to allow basic commodities to be transported to Gaza has shown its inability to cooperate with international demands when it comes to the Palestinians. Even if he is partially motivated by populism leading up to next year's elections, Erdogan generally feels for the Palestinian cause, and most Turks agree with their prime minister that there is a human crisis in Gaza and that something must be done about it. They contend that Turkey, as a Middle Eastern power in pursuit of regional stability, cannot remain silent in the face of the unfolding tragedy in Gaza.

This simmering environment is what led to the series of diplomatic blunders by Israel's deputy foreign minister Dan Ayalon. By summoning up Turkish Ambassador Celikkol and then boasting in Hebrew to cameras about the symbolism of his lower seat and the absence of a Turkish flag, Ayalon insulted and disrespected Turkey, and reflected poorly on Israeli moderates. For an experienced diplomat to engage in this kind of behavior is sophomoric and demonstrated a lack of diplomatic savvy. Even after Ayalon's apology letter and Defense Minister Barak's visit to Ankara, Ayalon has continued with unnecessary provocations.

In the days since this diplomatic tit-for-tat, many opponents to Turkey's ruling AK Party have suggested Erdogan's imprudent comments are indicative of a growing trend toward the Islamization of Turkey. Though this criticism has strong roots amongst Erdogan's opposition parties, its manifestation in Turkey's new foreign policy is far outshined by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's doctrine of borders with no problems. Turkey simply cannot build strong regional relationships with Syria or Iran at the expense of Israel. This will not only defy the Davutoglu strategy, but it is unsustainable as part of Turkey's leverage comes from its position as a trusted mediator. Turkey must balance the juggling act of its myriad ties with the EU, Arab world, Iran, Israel, and allies in both the East and West for the sake of its own rise to prominence; drop one of these interests and every other relationship will be inadvertently affected. If Turkey wants to mitigate regional conflicts with which Israel is directly involved, it must demonstrate a capacity for objectivity and sound reasoning.

It would be unwise at this point for Turkey to take Israel's loyalty for granted at a time when Israel is under international pressure to make major concessions for peace and is looking for allies to rely on who understand its national security concerns. A strategic alliance must mutually reinforce both nations' national security requirements. The Turkish-Israeli bond was never merely an alliance of convenience, and to that end both nations must take constructive measures to ensure sustainable improvement in their relationship to effectively contribute to regional order.

To engage in new constructive dialogue between Israel and Turkey, Israel must realize that Ayalon is now a liability and must be fired not only because of his terrible diplomatic gaffes, but because his actions will reflect on Israel's image in the eyes of the international community. If Israel wants to project itself as having one voice under one government, it cannot allow itself to succumb to fractious rivalries that undermine its bilateral relationships. Netanyahu should demonstrate to the world that he will not tolerate such behavior for domestic consumption at the expense of Israeli allies. Turkey should also take advantage of Israel's official apology and refrain from provoking Israel, ending verbal incitements to restore civility to the diplomatic relations with Israel. Both sides must build on the good-will gestures created by the visit of Israel's Defense Minister Barak to Ankara while making sure that all bilateral trade and military agreements are fully adhered to in order to prevent future souring of the relationship.

Since the rift between the two nations began with the Gaza incursion and its consequences, Israel should make some conciliatory moves to ease the Palestinian humanitarian plight, not merely for Turkey's sake but because this is the right thing to do and will have positive ramifications for Israel's standing with enemies and allies alike. The relative calm along the Gaza borders offers Israel an opportunity to change the dynamics on the ground without appearing to have buckled under outside pressure. It is fundamentally in Israel's best interest to demonstrate that the Israelis care about Palestinian civilians in Gaza, even if that indirectly benefits Hamas. Traditionally, Turkey has shown a great sensitivity to the plight of the Palestinians, and its relationship with Israel has often fluctuated depending on the status of this issue. Nonetheless, Turkey should make efforts to delink the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from its own bilateral relations with Israel, as the latter must not be hostage to the inevitable ups and downs between Israel and Hamas in particular. Moreover, Ankara could use its good relations with Hamas to influence it to moderate its political views in relations to Israel, especially if Hamas hopes to enter the political process.

To restore visible normal relations between the two countries, Israel should reciprocate Barak's visit to Ankara by immediately inviting Turkey's trade or cultural minister to visit Israel. This could pave the way during the next few months for a state visit of Turkey's President Gul to Israel, as there is a pending invitation from President Peres. This high level exchange will send a clear message that Turkey and Israel are ready to cooperate as firm allies while Erdogan continues to reach out to the Arab world. Once mutual confidence and trust is restored, Turkey could potentially renew its mediation efforts between Israel and Syria. In repeated conversations with Israeli officials, it was made clear to me that Israelis would welcome Turkey playing such a role provided that from now on, Ankara consistently demonstrates in words and deeds that it is both a reliable friend and an objective interlocutor.

The private sector would be an ideal arena for Turkey and Israel to deepen their strategic partnership. Substantial progress can be made to expand this relationship beyond the traditional elite exchanges between government to government and military to military. In this respect Israel needs to demonstrate greater cooperation in dealing with Turkish-Israeli business exchanges, and be far more accommodating to Turkish overtures. For example, Israel should host CEO's of large companies such as Turkcell and Turkish Airlines for networking and industry exchanges, and agree to invitations to send Israeli CEO's to Istanbul for this same purpose. Any such efforts made by the Turkish private sector thus far have been met with incompliance on the Israeli side. Information and agricultural technology should be another area of cooperation where Israel must take a role in facilitating smooth private sector exchanges between countries.

Turkey on the other hand can help increase business and government relations by working on water supply exchanges and an energy pipeline project possibly from Azerbaijan to Turkey to Israel that would be strongly welcomed. These types of exchanges will strengthen the people-to-people ties as citizens see an economic benefit and businesspeople increase travel. As the United States is most supportive of the Turkish-Israeli strategic alliance, Israel should work with the US in projects of strong national interest to Turkey, such as building a nuclear power plant. Turkey wants this investment, and with some convincing the US can help in this sense, which would be a project where all three countries can increase trilateral relations. If Turkey's needs are ignored, it will inevitably turn to Russia, France, or Korea. On more than one occasion I have been told by numbers of high Israeli officials that Turkey is second in importance for Israel only to the United States. If this is truly the case, Israel has much to do in working on its public image in Turkey. Public relations initiatives, media consulting, and Israeli interest groups in Ankara (all which are prevalent in the US) would be a wise investment for Israel. The Ayalon incident is a perfect example of bad PR, and Turkey is important enough to Israel's interests to invest in stronger public relations in this capacity.

The speculation about the future of Turkish-Israeli relations will continue for some time to come, but one thing remains clear: Turkey and Israel recognize the indispensability of their strategic partnership to each other and to the stability of the greater region. What they must now also recognize is that emotions should never overtake reason. The deeper the bilateral relationship is between both nations, the greater the responsibility will be that they shoulder towards one another. Restoring this relationship will undoubtedly take efforts and personal initiative from leaders on both sides, but the long term interests of both countries must always outweigh myopic infighting. These next few months will be critical to the development of this relationship. Turkey and Israel must now engage each other on common ground because is time to rise above the fray.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir can be contacted at alon@alonben-meir.com Web: www.alonben-meir.com

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