The recent history of the Turkish-Israeli relationship amounts to unnecessary bickering despite a clear convergence of interests. Contrary to popular belief in such critical institutions as U.S. Congress, the interests of both countries are strongly aligned but ideological disagreements in combination with bad luck and short-sighted populist policies on both sides are responsible for a lost decade.
This negative spiral symbolically started on January 30th, in 2009, when then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan participated in a World Economic Forum panel discussion with the late Israeli President Shimon Peres. Annoyed by the moderator, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and upset with Israel’s policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, Prime Minister Erdoğan stormed of the stage after repeatedly shouting the now infamous words, “One Minute!”
As some of my readers will recall, I was the Turkish ambassador in Israel at the time and had a first-row seat in witnessing the relationship disintegrate.
The first damage was before Davos
The relationship was already strained because Israel had just conducted the “Cast Lead” military operation in Gaza, right after a historical Syria meeting between Prime Minister Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Ankara on December 22, 2008. Olmert’s failure to positively return Erdoğan’s attempts to mediate between Syria and Israel, followed by the Israeli attack on Gaza, was the real reason behind the breaking of the relationship.
Erdogan, understandably never forgave Olmert for negating on his promises to return Erdoğan’s calls to mediate. A few years later, when I was serving as the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., Olmert privately confessed to me that he owed an apology to Erdoğan for not keeping his promises.
The quick deterioration of the relationship after these events might suggest otherwise but the state of affairs between the two countries was in fact enjoying a peak before these series of events.
Used to be an exemplary relationship
Just before the “One Minute” incident, Abdullah Gül, then President of the Republic of Turkey, was even planning an official state visit to Israel on January 9, 2009, and the presidential advance team had already visited Israel to prepare the visit. Foreign Policy insiders considered Turkish-Israeli political relations as exemplary for the rest of the region and I could name countless examples of ongoing bilateral cooperation and coordination.
The importance of the military angle of the relationship is difficult to overstate; not just for the two countries but for peace and stability in the entire region. One striking example of the level that this cooperation had reached since the mid-90s was Turkey’s purchase of 10 UAVs (Herons) from Israel. This procurement resonates even today as exemplified by Turkey‘s recent impressive advancement in defense capabilities in general and UAV technologies more particularly.
Trade has not been affected by politics
But the relationship did not rely solely on military cooperation as notable integration existed in other fields as well. Perhaps most tellingly, the economic relationship was thriving and never became subservient to the political relationship. During my tenure as Ambassador, the bilateral trade volume was around 3,4 billion US dollars then. Our objective was to raise this number to 5 billion US dollars in five years. We managed to raise total trade by 60% to 5.7 billion US dollars despite all the political turmoil.
The Flotilla attack
Following the infamous encounter between Erdoğan and Peres, a second blow to the relationship materialized on May 31st, 2010 when a flotilla of 6 ships led by the Turkish civilian vessel Mavi Marmara tried to breach the Israeli maritime embargo over Gaza. The flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli Navy and 10 Turkish civilian activists were killed by Israeli soldiers during the operation. Not surprisingly this incident caused an enormous uproar in Turkey. The government strongly condemned it. Obviously, no other country could have reacted differently to the military targeting of unarmed citizens. The incident undermined all our efforts to mend fences after the 2009 Davos incident.
For a long time, both countries froze political relations but finally, we are seeing positive steps to recover from this lost decade. Actually, there is no serious bilateral problem between the two countries; the main source of tension simply stems from the Palestinian issue and ideological stances.
What is to be done?
The Palestinian plight is important for Turkey from a humanitarian and historical point of view. On the other hand, it’s better to be able to negotiate improved conditions for Palestinians if the Turkey-Israel relationship is thriving and mutual interests exist on other fronts. Strong Turkish-Israeli relations will serve Turkey’s strategic interests as well as the positive spillover effect on relations with the third parties such as the EU and the U.S.
Turkey and Israel need to take three immediate steps.
First, full diplomatic relations should be resumed. Political leaders should keep in mind that without professional engagement it will prove hard to restore confidence on an institutional level and to mend fences in a way that lasts. In 2016, partly thanks to the efforts of the Obama-Biden administration, Israel has taken a courageous decision and apologized to Turkey because of the Mavi Marmara tragedy. But more is needed on all institutional levels.
The Palestinian issue
Secondly, both sides should free themselves of their ideological reservations and abandon short-term populist temptations. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how the national interests of both countries in the Eastern Mediterranean could have been served if both sides could act with practical wisdom rather than ideology.
Thirdly, both countries should not allow the relations to be taken hostage by the Palestinian issue. There are justifiable historical reasons for Turkey to feel responsible to find a just solution to the Palestinian problem. However, Turkey cannot contribute to a future solution to the decades-old problem unless it enjoys relational leverage with Israel. Similarly, Israel needs to distance herself from emotional fears and return to the realization that Turkey is the most meaningful friend it enjoys in the region.
While it is fair to qualify the last decade of the bilateral as a lost one, I am optimistic about its future.