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Israel Offers to Reconcile with Turkey: Compulsions and Realities

Col Rajeev Agarwal is a former Research Fellow at IDSA and a research analyst on West Asia. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 25, 2013

    On 22 March 2013, as President Obama was about to board the plane on completing his visit to Israel, there was a hush-hush telephone call followed by a grand declaration: the Israeli Prime Minister apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan for the Gaza Flotilla operation of May 2010, which had resulted in Israeli commandos killing nine innocent Turkish civilians. Netanyahu even agreed to offer compensation to the families of the victims and agreed to the Turkish demand for lifting the military siege on Gaza and easing restriction on the flow of aid into Gaza, thus agreeing to all three preconditions laid out by Turkey for any reconciliation.

    Suddenly, everything about Obama’s first visit to Israel was forgotten, the prospects of Israel-Palestine peace talks put on the back burner for the moment and even the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme has been relegated to the future. Obama had indeed pulled a rabbit out of the hat and accomplished something that had eluded the region for three years; rapprochement and reconciliation between two important regional powers both of which are critical US allies.

    As the region, the two nations and the people grapple with the new emerging situation, this latest development throws up critical questions:

    • How and why did Netanyahu agree to apologize despite his strong stance on the issue for almost three years?
    • What was the US role and interest in the development?
    • How is Turkey likely to perceive the development and take its ties further with Israel?

    Israeli Compulsions

    “In light of Israel’s investigation into the incident which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the prime minister expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/non liability,” the statement from Netanyahu’s office read. “Prime Minister Netanyahu also noted that Israel had substantially lifted the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and that this would continue as long as calm prevailed.”1

    Why now? "We could have made this apology a while ago, but then, more than they wanted an apology, Turkey wanted to humiliate Israel and hurt its international standing. Now, backed with the US initiative, it was possible to reach a compromise without anybody losing face," said Danny Ayalon, former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, reacting to the apology.2

    The US may have provided the support and platform for the apology, but it was something Israel had to do desperately as it was finding the developing regional situation difficult to handle with every passing day. In a region surrounded by adversaries, the last two years have not been exactly what Israel would have hoped for. The ‘Arab Spring’ had caught the region by surprise and Israel was definitely caught on the wrong side of developments. Having broken off with Turkey just a few months earlier in May 2010, the fall of President Mubarak in February 2011, the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in March 2011 and the brief Gaza operations “Operation Pillar of Defence”3 in November 2012, all isolated Israel like never before in the recent past.

    Israel found itself surrounded by new regimes which were not ready to guarantee the continuance of the fragile peace in the region. Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi worried Israel about the prospects of continuation of their bilateral peace treaty. The Sinai desert had slowly developed into an area of security concern and was serving as a conduit for arms supplies to the Hamas in the Gaza strip, forcing Israel to construct a 240 kilometre steel fence across it. Hamas was emboldened by international support during Operation Pillar of Defence. Syria under Assad had ensured peace along the border with Israel, but with the Assad regime under threat this frontier too became unstable. Jordan, itself under the influence of ‘Arab Spring’, threatened to go the way of the Islamists, although King Abdullah has been successful in containing the situation for now. To add to Israeli woes, the relationship with the US came under tremendous strain over the Palestine issue as well as the Iran nuclear issue. While Israel publicly propagated military action against Iran, the US wanted to give diplomacy a chance.

    In such an unfavourable environment, Israel desperately needed to get back its only ally in the region; Turkey. There was a strong realization of this imperative in Israel; all that it was perhaps looking for was a face saver.

    US Role and Interests

    "The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security," said Obama.4

    If there was anyone who wanted this Israel-Turkey reconciliation to happen, and happen at the earliest, it was definitely the US. Stung by the new realignments post the ‘Arab Spring’ and the compulsions to look beyond the Middle East as dictated by its ‘Asia pivot’, the US could not have left the regional situation adrift. Egypt was trying to chart its own independent course; Turkey and Israel were estranged allies; and there was no tangible progress on the Iran nuclear issue. Most importantly, the Syrian crisis threatened to spiral totally out of control.

    Post Iraq and Afghanistan, the US does not want to get itself involved militarily in regional disputes. In order to achieve this, it requires able and trusted regional allies who could shoulder the military burden as and when required, while the US provides material and technological support. In such a situation, the US requires Israel and Turkey to be on the same side. Perhaps this, along with concern over the situation in Syria, was what led Obama to urge Israel to reach out to Turkey. Allegations over the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war had prompted Obama to repeat his “red line” concerning any use of chemical weapons and to declare that such use would be a “game changer” for the US in its approach to the conflict.5 Thus, the US as well as NATO needed Turkey and Israel to forge a regional alliance for ousting Assad from power.

    Turkey’s Gains

    In the process, Turkey has been the definite winner. It made Israel bow to its demand that too through US mediation. Coming on the back of possible reconciliation with the Kurds, this would count as a good phase in Turkey’s foreign policy. On 21 March, PKK leader, Abbdullah Ojalan, leader announced a ceasefire and the very next day came the long awaited apology from Israel.

    Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu said: “When Kerry (US Secretary of State) visited Turkey we talked about these matters very openly. We voiced our three demands [apology, compensation and lifting of the Gaza blockade] if Turkey's contribution to the peace process in the Middle East and the normalization of ties with Israel was wanted… We agreed that Netanyahu would call the Turkish prime minister accompanied by President Obama. Each word of the agreement has been studied.”6 Davutoğlu also said that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called both the Hamas prime minister of Gaza and the leader of the Palestinian Authority to get their approval before accepting Israel's formal apology for the Mavi Marmara raid. He added that Erdoğan also called Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

    The confirmation from the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office read: "Erdogan told (Israeli premier) Benjamin Netanyahu that he valued the centuries-long strong friendship and cooperation between the Turkish and Jewish nations.”

    These developments clearly demonstrate how deliberately and shrewdly Turkey got what it wanted. It has given a much required boost to Turkey’s stature in the region as well as in the Arab world where it would be seen how Turkey had made Israel bow down to pressure. Already championing itself as a role model of governance and democracy to the new evolving regimes in the region, this would give the just required fillip for Turkey’s quest for leadership role in the region.

    Importantly, the trigger for the reconciliation – the Syrian crisis – required both Turkey and Israel to be on the same side. Both, Israel and Turkey had grown increasingly concerned about events in Syria; Turkey in confronting an ever-growing Syrian refugee population and Israel with the increasing presence of Islamist extremists from around the region, especially along the Golan Heights and the Lebanese border. Added to that was the fear of chemical weapons being used in Syria and their residual effect into their countries as also the fear of the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons falling in the hands of Hezbollah and other militant groups.

    Looking Ahead

    “Turkey accomplished making Israel bow down," read a written Hamas statement adding that “Turkey made Israel accepts its rightly demands. It reveals the Zionist enemy does not understand anything besides a firm standing or the language of resistance.”7 This statement clearly reflected the triumphant emotions on Israel’s apology in the neighbourhood and could translate into a greater role for Turkey in the region.

    It remains to be seen how Turkey reacts to the rapprochement. It is unlikely that the relationship would reach the levels of cooperation seen earlier. After all, it was the breaking off with Israel that provided Turkey with an opportunity to reach out to the Arab world. Whether Turkey will now soften its rhetoric against Israel and revisit its role as a key interlocutor between Israel and the Arabs as also the Palestinians, only time will tell. However, Erdogan and his team have proven how important Turkey remains to the region, especially as a US and NATO ally. For the time being at least, Turkey appears triumphant, the US elated and Israel clearly relieved.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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