Just hours after the recent Soma mine disaster, the Israeli embassy in Ankara cancelled an Israeli Independence Day ceremony out of respect for Turkey’s tragedy. Tel Aviv also announced that it was ready to provide any technical or medical support Ankara needed to speed the rescue operations. This was a show of respect for the feelings of the Turkish people, and came in response to the help provided by Turkey a few years before during the deadly Mount Carmel forest fires, when Turkey sent two firefighting aircraft to Israel.
One week later, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded angrily to attempts by media affiliated to Fethullah Gülen’s movement claiming that the prime minister had used an anti-Israeli slur. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) promptly denied the reports, with the prime minister personally thanking Tel Aviv for its show of solidarity during a difficult time for the country.
It is well known that US President Barack Obama has strongly supported Turkish–Israeli rapprochement. He persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pick up the phone and offer an official apology for Israel’s role in the Gaza Flotilla raid. Netanyahu did this despite the fact that a number of international reports, including the UN’s own Palmer Report, ruled that the Israeli blockade of Gaza was legal.
So why did Netanyahu forget these justifications and risk picking up the phone to call Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to apologize, unless Israel was well aware that it had more to gain by following this course of action?
Netanyahu’s call happened after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. On the Turkish side, these were led by intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, under the direct supervision of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç. The Israeli side was led by Netanyahu adviser Dore Gold and national security adviser Yossi Cohen, in coordination with the prime minister himself.
If there was no real desire to resolve matters this time around, Arınç would never have said that “Turkey welcomes full normalization and returning relations between the two countries to what they were before,” in comments to an Israeli newspaper last year.
However what Arınç conspicuously did not say at the time is that both Ankara and Tel Aviv had separately come to the realization that they were paying a heavy price for the deterioration in their relations. He hinted that “full normalization” would improve the chances of regional peace, on the implicit understanding that certain regional players, such as the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, Iran and the Maliki government in Iraq, were benefiting from this state of Turkish–Israeli tension.
Thus we can see there are regional reasons behind this desire to end the estrangement—not to mention bilateral motives for conciliation and normalization.
We must look at the profit-and-loss lists of both Israel and Turkey to understand their latest reconciliation. This could start with the alliances that appear to be growing stronger at their expense. Both Turkey and Israel require greater coordination in the region, prompting them to revive an old strategic alliance.
There is a general belief in both Turkey and Israel that they could pay a heavy price for the deterioration in their relations and that reconciliation would include coordination on more than one regional dossier, including Syria, Iran and Cyprus.
Reconciliation will reopen Turkish airspace to Israeli aircraft, allowing the Israeli Air Force to carry out long-distance fight training. This would also speed up the implementation of the Turkish–Israeli energy corridor—transferring Israeli gas through Turkey to Europe, while also reducing Ankara’s own reliance on Russia and Iran for gas.
The first practical translation of the latest reconciliation efforts will no doubt include Erdoğan officially visiting Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This visit was in the works before the deterioration of relations, and rescheduling it would be a much-needed shot in the arm to the AKP leadership, as well as to residents of both Gaza and Israel.
However, amid the atmosphere of optimism, an issue arose last week that threatens to disrupt the course of the Turkish–Israeli reconciliation. The Turkish Criminal Court, which is dealing with a case relating to the attack on the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the Gaza Flotilla, ordered the arrest of four Israeli commanders allegedly involved in the raid. They went as far as to issue an Interpol Red Notice.
Senior Turkish government and diplomatic sources described the timing of the court’s move as “strange.” It came more than four years after the Mavi Marmara incident, and at a time when both Tel Aviv and Ankara are seeking a hard-won rapprochement.
Tel Aviv was content to describe the Turkish court’s decision as “political,” while Ankara is investigating the possibility that this is part of an attempt by the “deep state”—or, alternatively, supporters of Fethullah Gülen—to disrupt the Turkish–Israeli rapprochement.
Are claims such as this worth investigating? Perhaps, particularly given that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had earlier said that Ankara and Israel were close to reaching a final agreement on reconciliation. Could this have prompted parties that oppose the Erdoğan government to send the message, via the judiciary, that any reconciliation with Israel will not be so easily secured?
Perhaps, but again what is clear is that Turkey–Israeli relations have always been influenced and affected by their mutual relations with other states—improving or deteriorating as the situation requires. According to my understanding of the comments coming out of both Ankara and Tel Aviv over the past weeks and months, it is clear that they are now seeking to learn from the lessons from their past experiences and try to translate this onto the ground.