ISTANBUL, Turkey: The government of Israel recently announced its willingness to cooperate with a UN investigation into the raid on the Freedom Flotilla in which eight Turks and a US citizen of Turkish origin were killed. However, Ankara’s insistence that Israel admit its role as an instigator and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance on the flotilla incident, insisting that Israel was forced to act, has further undermined the relations between two of the United States’ main allies in the Middle East.
Turks have grown upset about Israel’s operations in Gaza and Lebanon in recent years, which have disrupted Turkey’s efforts to promote peace in the region. These efforts include a revitalization of the Erez industrial zone project in Israel – a project that would have given hundreds of Gazans the opportunity to work – and Turkish diplomats’ efforts to promote dialogue between Israeli and Syrian officials.
For their part, Israelis and some groups within the United States and the European Union are concerned that the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embraced a conservative Middle East because of it growing contacts with the Iranian and Syrian governments. This, coupled with the political Islamic roots of Turkey’s current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, has caused the right-leaning members of Israel’s government to suspect Turkey’s motives of being more political than humanitarian in providing aid to Gazans, unfortunately deepening their divide.
At this point in Israeli-Turkish relations, some steps need to be taken to help re-establish positive people-to-people and government interaction between the two countries — and to improve the political climate in the Middle East.
The first step in re-establishing positive ties would be for Israel’s government to first apologize to Turkey for the flotilla incident. In the raid’s aftermath, Turkish nationalism cannot be ignored, and the Turks will not soon forget the deaths of their compatriots and the attack on a ship carrying the Turkish flag. Turkey is unlikely to send its recalled ambassador back to Israel in the absence of an apology. Without any concessions on Israel’s part, the potential for nationalist solidarity within each country could occlude either country’s desire for renewed diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu must consider not just the humanitarian reasons for lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but also the benefits of doing so for the sake of good public relations both in the region and globally. Allowing aid into Gaza would reduce hostility toward Israel, not only in Turkish public opinion, but also in Israel’s neighboring countries with Muslim-majority populations.
On the Turkish side, Erdogan and other members of his cabinet should gracefully accept this move and declare relations back to normal, leaving the inflammatory rhetoric against Israel aside going forward and re-focus on mediation in the peace process and development projects that help Palestinians. Both sides must keep in mind the long-term need for continuing dialogue. This is essential for the future of the entire region. Ankara’s role in Israeli-Syrian mediation, for example, has been the most promising in a while when it comes to resolving the dispute over the Golan Heights.
As Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said during his July visit to Spain, Syria wants to see Turkish-Israeli relations recover because Turkey is playing the most vital role in furthering the Middle East peace process.
At the same time, Turkish business owners with investments in Israel are urging the Turkish government to resolve the current crisis.
Neither Syria nor Israel can afford to lose Turkey as a peace-broker, as Turkey’s interests as an emerging regional power are realistically bound to healthy diplomacy with Israel.
The European Union has a role to play as well. Every time Brussels has rejected a Turkish bid to join the EU — in 1989, 1997 and possibly again in the current rounds — Ankara has turned its gaze eastward, which the West views nervously for geo-political reasons. A decisive and inclusive stance by the EU as far as Turkish accession is concerned would greatly help Turkish-Israeli relations, since it could allay Israeli fears of an eastward-looking Turkey.
Turkey still stands as a reputable broker for disputes in the region. Without solving its current issues with Israel, however, Ankara’s role as mediator may be undermined in some of the most intractable and urgent conflicts.
Andrés Mourenza is a coordinator of Eurasian Hub (www.eurasianhub.org) and a Spanish journalist based in Istanbul since 2005. He writes for Spanish EFE news agency (www.efe.com) and El Periodico de Catalunya (www.elperiodico.com). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).