Forest fire thaws Turkish and Israeli cold shoulders

Forest fire thaws Turkish and Israeli cold shoulders

06 Dezember 2010

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Israel — Last May’s killing of nine Turkish citizens by Israeli security forces as they seized a ship trying to break its embargo on Gaza saw bilateral relations collapse amid bitter mutual recriminations.

But the fatal forest fire that struck Israel last week may have become an opportunity for thawing relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara. In a surprise move, Turkey sent two firefighting planes to Israel to help contain the deadly blaze.

Following Ankara’s decision to send the planes to Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed a telephone call to his Turkish counterpart to thank him.

This was the first conversation the two leaders have had since the deadly incident last May. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also used an address to his supporters over the weekend to tentatively reach out to Israel

“Some say we should turn a new page… An apology must be offered first, compensation must be paid first,” Erdogan said. “If a hand is extended, we will not leave it in the air, but we want to see that this hand is extended with sincerity.”

Closed-door talks

The apparent softening of his stance has also been matched by a diplomatic move. Over the weekend there was a high-level meeting of Turkish and Israeli diplomats in Geneva, although no details of the talks were released.

This comes at a time when Ankara is facing mounting pressure from its allies to mend fences with Israel. Last month the head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, met with Erdogan.

“It is in the interests of everyone – Turks, Israelis Americans and others – that the relationship, an important one between Turkey and Israel, be renewed,” Kerry said.

That stance has been echoed in Europe. In October, German President Christian Wulff used his visit to Turkey to stress the importance of Turkish-Israel relations.

The European Union has also called on Ankara to improve ties, and observers say Ankara is also facing growing pressure on the issue from Middle Eastern leaders.

Until the collapse in bilateral relations, Turkey had been playing a key role as a mediator in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But political scientist Cengiz Aktar says the collapse in relations with Israel has significantly curtailed Turkey’s regional influence.

“These peace and mediation efforts are dead. So Turkey’s stance around the world cannot survive by antagonizing Israel,” said Aktar.

Diplomatic challenge

The Turkish-Israeli tensions are seen as just another destabilizing factor in already unstable region. But while pressure is mounting on Ankara to resolve its differences, analysts say to do so will require a good deal of diplomatic skill.

“The government has engaged itself very concretely on these topics and would not want to give the impression of stepping down at this moment,” diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz told Deutsche Welle.

“This would cost the government domestically in the political environment that we have in the country at the moment. So we have a bit of stalemate in which Turkey is expected to take steps but is not in a position to do so because of domestic politics.”

With a general election scheduled for next June, domestic policy is of heightened importance.

While the populist anti-Israel stance that Erdogan espoused until the past few days may win him some votes, this comes at a high cost for Turkey’s international reputation.

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