The time is right for Turkey and Israel to mend their relationship, which has declined sharply since 2010. With the turmoil of the Arab Spring, with the crisis in Syria; with the concerns around Iran’s nuclear program; with the recent expansion of the Netanyahu government; and with the increasing trade relations between Turkey and Israel, restoring their bilateral relationship now will serve the interests of both.
The most alarming issue now is the turmoil in Syria. Turkey has taken a stand against the carnage inflicted by Assad’s regime. Prime Minister Erdogan has stated that Bashar Assad and his cohorts must step down.
Turkey has a 510-mile-long border with Syria. It is providing humanitarian aid, sheltering the refugees, and hosting the Syrian National Council, the main opposition to Assad. Israel, for its part, has quietly monitored the situation while taking no provocative action. By keeping calm, Israel provides Turkey the space to serve as the main broker against Assad, empowered by the Arab League.
The new political order that emerges in Syria will greatly affect both Israel and Turkey. As neighbors of Syria, both need to deal with post-Assad Syria in a manner that will ensure regional stability and enhance their security.
The Arab Spring has changed power relations in the region. Relations have diminished between Israel and Egypt, which had been the pillar of regional stability since the Camp David Accords.
At the same time, Turkey’s stature has grown immensely, due partly to Prime Minister Erdogan’s popularity, his position on Syria, and his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turkey’s strong position on Syria, in particular, has mitigated the impression that Turkey panders to Islamists. Its balanced approach has alleviated some of Israel’s earlier concerns. Hence Turkey has emerged as an attractive interlocutor and model for the Arab world while deepening Israel’s isolation.
Israel’s hawkish stance against Iran’s nuclear program has exacerbated regional tension. As long as there is continuing conflict between Israel and Iran, however, Turkey, who is also concerned over Iran’s nuclear program, has a role in diffusing the tensions. Despite the growing tension between Ankara and Tehran over the fate of the Assad government, Turkey is still on speaking terms with Iran, enjoys some influence, and could press Tehran to negotiate more flexibly. Turkey has resisted implementing sanctions on Iran, thus opposing Israel’s hard-line stance. But Turkey also dreads an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and would seek to prevent it, so it has mutual interests with Israel. Constructive dialogue may reduce the friction regarding Iran’s nuclear program, to their mutual benefit.
For good reason, Turkey opposes the Israeli settlement program, especially in light of the Netanyahu government’s recent decision to retroactively legalize three West Bank outposts. Turkey still criticizes Israeli policies in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Furthermore, it blocked Israel’s participation in the NATO Summit in Chicago and the Mediterranean Dialogue Group. This was because Israel refused to apologize for the Gaza Flotilla incident during which Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American.
While Israel has avoided provoking Turkey in recent months, it still resents the Erdogan government for lashing out against Israel at every opportunity. Israel wants to end the sad Marmara episode and resume its alliance with a country that is now a close ally of the US, a powerful member of NATO, and a neighbor of Israel’s three most sinister enemies: Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The US has been urging them to reconcile, since the future stability of the region depends on their cooperation.
Although diplomatic relations, military exchanges, and tourism between Israel and Turkey have been reduced to historically low levels, trade relations between them have reached new heights and there is a tremendous level of technical collaboration.
Also significant is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent expansion of his coalition government, which now commands 94 out of 120 Knesset members. This has strengthened his power to an unprecedented degree. He can now face down smaller parties.
Two years have passed since the Gaza Flotilla Raid of May 31st, 2010 broke off relations between Israel and Turkey. A year ago, both sides agreed that Israel would apologize, compensate the victims, and let Turkey send food and consumer goods to Gaza.
There was dissent within the cabinet over this plan. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s threat to quit the coalition forced Netanyahu to back down. Now that Netanyahu commands an overwhelming majority in the Knesset, he can revive this agreement and offer the apology that Ankara demands without fearing Lieberman’s departure. Turkey promises that when such an apology is made, it will resume full diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors. Netanyahu is operating from a position of strength, so this is the time to apologize.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at New York University.