Crisis in Turkey-Israel Relations: Contours and Perspectives

Ibrahim Abdel Kareem: Crisis in Turkey-Israel Relations: Contours and Perspectives

  • 15 September 2011

At the turn of this century, Turkey and Israel enjoyed close relations and cooperated with each other at various levels. However, relations between the two were strained when Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)—under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—came to power in 2002. However, the simmering tension between the two sides surfaced when Israel launched a war on Gaza Strip (2008-2009) and in its wake Erdoğan dropped a diplomatic bombshell at the Davos Conference (in 2009) when he told Israeli President Shimon Peres that he knew ‘very well how Palestinians are being killed” in Gaza. Acrimonious exchanges again escalated in early 2010 after the notorious ‘low seat’ incident, when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon purposely snubbed Turkish Ambassador to Israel, Oguz Chelikkol by making him sit on a lower seat at a meeting in order to avenge Turkish criticism of Israel. Finally, relations reached an all-time low when Israeli naval forces killed nine Turkish activists (in May 2010) on board the ship ‘Marmara’, which was part of the Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for the beleaguered people in Gaza Strip.

Thereafter, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon formed a committee to investigate the Freedom Flotilla incident. The committee was headed by former Prime Minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer and included former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe along with Israeli and Turkish representatives Joseph Ciechanover and Ozden Sanberk. Having completed its report, the Committee sent its draft to Israel and Turkey, and in light of differences among its members, the publication of the report was postponed several times to give more time for the two countries to reconcile their differences. However, it was alleged that the chairman of the Committee and his deputy, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, were biased toward Israel. It was even claimed that the report was drafted in collaboration with Israel even and that all proposals made by Turkey were ignored.

With the publication of the Palmer’s report in New York on September 2, 2011, relations between Israel and Turkey reached breaking point. The report claims that the naval blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip was justified under international law. However, it states that Israeli Marines did use excessive force while attempting to take control of the ship Marmara, thereby killing nine Turkish activists. Still, the report does not call on Israel to offer an apology to Turkey, but merely asks it to express regret over the killings.

Israel has welcomed the report—punctuated by the selfsame reservations expressed by its representative Joseph Ciechanover—and it has also been accepted by the United Nations Secretary General. A source of satisfaction for Israel has been that the report has given international legitimacy to its blockade on Gaza. The report also states that Israeli soldiers had acted in self-defense. It avers that the Human Rights Council’s probe into this incident was not conducted professionally, and that the Turkish government’s investigation was not independent.

During the course of these investigations, the Erdogan government had been waging a diplomatic war against Israel. Therefore, Turkish officials—led by Prime Minister Erdogan—have reaffirmed that “it is unthinkable” to normalize relations with Israel, unless Tel Aviv apologizes for the bloody raid on the ship ‘Mavi Marmara,’ pays compensation for the killing of Turkish activists and lifts the siege on Gaza Strip.

It was reported that secret talks had taken place between the two sides in Geneva and resumed in New York, in which they reached an agreement on two issues; on the “compensations” and “normalization.” However, Netanyahu was unable to persuade members of his government on these points, so the agreement has been shelved. Thereafter, Israel proposed doubling the amount of compensation—by raising it to about $100,000 for each of the nine families of the dead—in lieu of Turkey giving up on its demand for an Israeli apology, but Turkey turned down the offer. Both sides continued such attempts to reach a compromise, and there was also an attempt to formulate a statement that could be understood as “regret” in Hebrew but as “apology” in Turkish language. However, this attempt also failed.

Immediately after the final draft of the Palmer’s report was published, Turkey announced that it did not recognize Israeli blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip and took immediate action, including a series of sanctions on Israel after it refused to apologize, most notably by downgrading diplomatic representation to the third degree and by freezing security agreements with Israel.

In the face of this aggressive Turkish position, Israeli reactions were marked by calmness in order to contain the crisis. However, Israel maintained its official rejection of the idea of an apology and accepted the principle of expressing regret and paying compensation. Netanyahu attempted to justify this stance by stating: “Apology means that we will bear the responsibility for what happened, while our soldiers were defending themselves.” The position of Moshe Ya'alon, in his capacity as minister of strategic affairs, was more strident and he opined that even if Israel reached an understanding with the Turkish government it will not prevent citizens of Turkey or others from raising criminal proceedings against Israeli soldiers and officers. In response to Erdogan's position, Ya'alon said on September 7 that it is not possible to rely on a government being a friend of Iran and Hamas, and not possible to share intelligence with such a state that turned from a “secular republic” into an “Islamic republic”.

Thereafter, Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz issued statements to the effect that it is Turkey which must apologize to Israeli soldiers because the United Nations committee had confirmed that Israel had not prevented the “fleet and that the siege on the Gaza Strip is legal." Some Israeli strategic thinkers went further; for example Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, warned that Ankara could even convey confidential information to Tehran (Ha’aretz 1/8/2011).

On the other hand, there were many Israeli voices that were critical of their government’s stance of refusing to apologize, and called for giving priority to the interests of both countries on the issue of “national dignity” (according to the statement by the Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Ohronovic). Tzipi Livni, the leader of  the largest opposition party in the Knesset (Kadima Party), criticized Netanyahu and called on the government to mitigate the adverse impact of its actions.

As for the fallout of the current crisis, there is general consensus that in the absence of an Israeli apology, Turkey will wage a legal campaign against Israel in several courts around the world. Erdogan has also talked about implementing ‘Plan C’ without giving specific details. It is believed that this plan might cover the severance of all commercial and trade relations with Israel, and even to take a contrary position against Israel in the international arena because of its policies in the region. These attempts could include Turkey’s broad support for a draft UN resolution for the recognition of the State of Palestine, putting pressure on the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency to impose sanctions on Israel over its nuclear program, and its refusal to ratify Israel's membership to NATO after the submission of a request to the NATO Secretariat on becoming its 29th member thereof.

In clear terms, Erdogan has announced that Turkish Naval Forces will now accompany Turkish ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Published reports also reveal that Turkey plans to increase its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, and not to allow that maritime area to be hostage to ‘Israeli piracy’. There are also reports of Turkish attempt to keep Israel out of the ballistic missile defense system of the United States and NATO, which is meant to intercept Iranian missiles.

In economic terms, recent years have shown that economic relations between Turkey and Israel have prospered even in a climate of political tension. The volume of trade between the two countries in 2010 amounted to $3 billion, about $1.3 billion of which was Israeli exports to Turkey. The size of trade between the two countries from the beginning of this year to July amounted to about $2.3 billion. However, trade related to defense between the two sides has discontinued for about a year and a half.

In case the Turkish government carries out its threat to sever trade relations with Israel, it is certain that both Israeli and Turkish economies will incur huge losses. But Turkey will find it easier to withstand the setback than Israel. The Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, testified on September 5, 2011 that the impact of a decline in trade with Turkey would be more severe for Israel than for Turkey, which has a GDP of over $700 billion. Economically, Turkey is the largest country in the region and is fast becoming a major economic player in global terms. It is re-establishing its position as a premier economy in regional trade, vis-à-vis countries of Asia, Europe or the Middle East.

The ongoing row between Israel and Turkey comes in a strategic setting which is not favorable to both countries. Israel is facing social protests and tensions, problems in its relations with Egypt, incoming rocket fire from Gaza, Palestinian move in the United Nations for statehood, and growing international pressure and isolation. For its part, Turkey is facing unfavorable developments in its regional setting, particularly in its relations with Syria—the regime which is facing mass protests—as well as the restiveness of the Kurdish front on the border with Iraq. The economic crisis in Europe could also undermine the Turkish dream of joining the European Union. On the other hand, there is a growing belief that the crisis in relations with Israel, gives Turkey the opportunity to galvanize popular support in the Arab and Islamic world and to become a preeminent power of the first degree in the region. The “resurrection of the Ottoman Empire” has now become a common refrain in the context of Turkey.

Although Israel and Turkey have several strategic commonalities and interests in the Middle East, Turkey still needs Israel as a conduit to the West and America. Israel still sees its relations with Turkey as a bridge to the East because Turkey is a major Islamic country in the region. On the other hand, Israeli military technology could help Turkey in confronting Kurdish forces and in the building of a mighty Turkish military. Plus, if we take into account the US pressure on both sides to resolve their differences at any price—for reasons pertaining to US interests in the region and the ongoing developments—the prospect of a complete break up  in relations between Turkey and Israel remains out of question. Thus, before hazarding the prospect of a severance in relations, we should be aware that the crisis is still open to new developments that would need subsequent assessments.