Israel — The forest fire recently on Israels Mount Carmel presented a timely opportunity for the Turkish and Israeli governments to climb down from crisis mode and look for an opening to start the normalization of relations. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan swiftly decided to send two firefighting aircraft as his humanitarian and Islamic duty. Rising to the occasion, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart to show his appreciation, and at the site of the blaze personally thanked Turkish firefighters.
With the theatrics taken care of, the two sides sent their representatives to Geneva to look for ways to break the impasse they have found themselves in since May. Relations hit a breaking point when the Israeli military attacked an aid flotilla in international waters and killed nine Turks (one an American citizen) after it encountered resistance by activists on the flagship Mavi Marmara.
The Israelis argued that this was an act of self-defense and that the primary instigator of the flotilla was an Islamist organization whose members had dubious affiliations. Turkey, on the other hand, insists that the attack was illegal, since it took place in international waters, accuses Israel of violating international conventions and laws in the way it treated the detainees, and demands both an official apology and indemnity for the victims of the raid.
So far, a judicious report by the United Nations Human Rights Council has provided strong support for the Turkish case. A commission brought together by the UN secretary general is also working on a report that is overdue, mainly because of Israeli foot dragging.
Although the gestures came rapidly and the Geneva talks immediately convened (they were later suspended), a problem remains. How do you come up with a magic formula for a conflict-resolving statement that gives two diametrically opposed messages so that both parties can save face? Turkey will not be satisfied unless it receives an apology for the death of its citizens. Israel is officially hesitant even to express regret.
If a formula can be found, then the parties may turn to their publics, boast of their victory and go back to reasonably civil relations, even if the intimacy during the heyday of their relations is likely never to be recovered. Indeed, the degree of commonality of interests that existed in the context of the mid-1990s between the two countries is no more.
On the most critical issues of the Middle Eastern regional order, the two capitals do not see eye to eye. Turkeys preference is almost exclusively for non-belligerence in solving the problems of the region. It is committed to a two-state solution and strongly opposes Israeli settlement activities, not to mention Israels policy toward Gaza. On Iran, it steadfastly opposes a military option. Therefore Turkey is at odds with Israel, though it may not like a nuclear Iran or an Iran that makes its strategic peace with the United States any better than Israel.
What developments since the Carmel fire demonstrate, however, is the existence of a political will from both prime ministers to forge ahead, break the impasse, and move on. Turkey is interested in not having Israel as a thorn in its side, especially when this concerns its relations with the US. Israel values the Turkish connection, is interested in normalizing relations, and wishes to have an agreement so that Turkey can help indemnify Israels military against lawsuits that might result from the findings of the report of the secretary generals commission.
Many observers wanted to invest the forest fire with the kind of psychological breakthrough that the earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999 proved to be. Although there is no denying the importance of the psychological dimension, that was not the only reason for Turkish-Greek relations to turn for the better. There were already political developments and a fairly well advanced political and societal rapprochement that provided the basis for that breakthrough.
In the Israeli-Turkish case as well, I would argue that political expediency plays an important role in Erdogans apparent readiness to jump on the opportunity provided by the fire. While Erdogan was taking this critical step, his party members were accusing Israel of being the mastermind behind the WikiLeaks scandal that they saw as a plot to embarrass and weaken the AKP government.
For Turkey, the falling out with Israel and the populist rhetoric used in the wake of the flotilla incident have been costly in terms of its relations with Washington. Combined with the shock and fury engendered by the Turkish vote against the new Iran sanctions package at the UN Security Council, Turkish-American relations have soured significantly.
Erdogans meeting with President Barack Obama in Toronto during the G-20 summit was reportedly testy. In the US Congress, anti-Turkish sentiment rose to new heights. The pro-Israel lobby that was Turkeys reliable ally in Congress and in public opinion turned decisively anti-Turkish and engaged in a defamation campaign against the AKP government. All this resurrected the tired talk about Turkeys changing axis because of the Islamization of its foreign policy. It became clear to the Turkish authorities that so long as the row with Israel continued, relations with the US could not be put on the right track.
Israel and Turkey look at the Middle Eastern order from very different perspectives. The Turkish military no longer calls the shots. Public opinion, which will remain anti-Israel as long as the Palestinian issue is not resolved, influences policymakers. At the same time, there are now strong Turkish constituencies that prefer a more cautious and moderate course in the conduct of policy toward Israel.
So if the magic formula is found, one can expect correct if not cordial relations between Israel and Turkey. This will get Israel off the hook on the flotilla affair and relieve Turkey of the pressures of an antagonistic, influential lobby in Washington. Based on the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Israeli public to Turkish assistance during the fire, this may mean a return to the pre-flotilla days in societal relations.