Turkey-Israel ties enter uncharted waters

By Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM - Amid last-minute preparations for a new Peace Flotilla that will try this week to break Israel's maritime blockade on Gaza, signs of a tentative thawing in relations between Israel and Turkey following a two-year crisis are becoming more apparent.

A report in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz last week revealed that Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon was conducting secret talks in Geneva with Feridun Sinirlioglu, undersecretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, .

Soon enough, the veil of secrecy was lifted, and the reconciliation process resembled more an exercise in public diplomacy.

During a cordial interview accorded to a group of Turkish journalists, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon declared, "Now we need to let go of this mutual blame game as to why trust was lost."
By "now", Ayalon meant the period following Turkey's general elections a fortnight ago. "Political tensions in Turkey have been left behind following the elections," he asserted.

Israeli diplomats indeed believe that the victory of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) at the polls will have a "pragmatic" impact on the stormy relations between the two countries.

Turkey froze its ties with Israel following the devastating Israeli operation on Hamas in Gaza (2008-2009). Following the popular series Ayrilik (Separation) aired on Turkish television last year, which depicted Israeli soldiers as blood-thirsty oppressors of Palestinian rights, Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador and, in blatant violation of diplomatic protocol, had him seated on a lower chair without the customary display of the host's flag. An Israeli TV crew especially invited recorded the humiliating scene. (See Israel-Turkey ties hit a low point, Asia Times Online, January 16, 2010)

Relations came close to rupture in May last year during the first Gaza Peace Flotilla incident, when Israeli naval commandos mounted an assault aboard the MV Marmara vessel. Nine Turkish activists from the Islamic Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) were killed in international waters during the botched raid.

Reconciliation has since stumbled over Turkey's demand that Israel formally "apologize" for the killing of the activists. Israel only agrees to express "regrets". Not all observers are predicting the current process of rapprochement will end well.

Suat Kiniklioglu, deputy chairman for external affairs of the AKP, told a conference in Washington sponsored by the Middle East Institute on June 23 that "If there is not dramatic change in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I don't see a Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv in five years."

Following last year's flotilla confrontation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiated a policy of strengthening security ties with Greece, Turkey's regional rival. But the volume of bilateral economic trade with the bankrupt country couldn't possibly reach that previously enjoyed by Israel with Turkey.

So, Netanyahu was prompt in seizing the opportunity offered by Erdogan's victory. He congratulated his counterpart, expressing the wish to heal the rift. Israeli diplomats see in the Syrian upheaval another opportunity for a thawing in relations. The whole Turkish foreign policy edifice of realigning Ankara as a strategic axis with Iran, Iraq and Syria seems to be crumbling, they note.

In particular, Syria's weakening is perceived as good omen, as it could disrupt Israel's eastern front (Iran, Syria and the Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah).

In contrast with the traditional Israeli wariness of a Muslim Brotherhood surge among its neighbors, former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin declared last week that the Arab Spring was "good for Israel". "The fact that Arabs are attacking their own regimes and not Israel is historic," he added.

With reports from the Turkish town of Guvecci affirming that Syrian troops could be seen quelling the unrest across the border, Turkey fears that such operations might spark a larger exodus of refugees, this time Kurdish, into its territory. Both countries have strong Kurdish minorities.

The concern of a border flare-up with dire regional consequences was echoed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Unless the Syrian forces immediately end their attacks and their provocations that are not only now affecting their own citizens but [raising] the potential of border clashes, then we're going to see an escalation of conflict in the area," she declared ominously.

Under US pressure, and "advice" from Turkey, IHH canceled its participation in the new aid flotilla to Gaza, explaining that the decision was aimed mainly at preventing the flotilla from diverting the non-governmental organization's attention from relieving the plight of Syrian refugees.

"The fact that the MV Marmara [owned by IHH] won't be coming [to Gaza for a second time] is a good opportunity for us to renew our ties," was Ayalon's reaction in the Turkish daily Hurriyet.

Coincidentally or not, what seems to be the most immediate reason for the current rehabilitation between the two countries is a United Nations inquiry committee's report on the first flotilla, due within two weeks.

A senior Israeli government official told Ha'aretz on Sunday that Turkey has asked Israel to agree to a "toned-down version" of the secretary-general's report.

The official is quoted as saying that Ankara is "very worried" about the "harsh criticism of Turkey" expected in the report. An Israeli acquiescence to the request would constitute part of a "package deal" aimed at putting behind the flotilla affair between them.

Since last year, both countries have altered their strategic orientations in ways that have undermined what has always been "an alliance of convenience", in the words of Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Good relations with Turkey were part of an Israeli strategy of compensating for its lack of rapport with its neighbors by building ties with non-Arab nations on the periphery of the Middle East. Turkey, for its part, valued Israeli support in Ankara's war against Kurdish nationalists and cultivated US Jews to lobby against anti-Turkish measures in the US Congress sponsored by US Greeks and Armenians.

However, with the world's 16th largest economy and growing ties to former Ottoman lands in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, "Turkey is coming into its own and no longer needs Israel or the American Jewish community," Barkey said. He also faulted Israel for taking Turkey "for granted".

The Arab spring has posed new challenges for Turkey's strategy of outreach to fellow Muslims and "no problems" with neighbors. However, Turkey's response to the Arab spring has been proactive, while Israel has hunkered down amid worries about trading risk-averse authoritarian regimes for pro-Palestinian populist ones.

Meanwhile, the latent protagonists of the second Peace Flotilla are conducting last rehearsals and simulation drills.

In Greece and in other Mediterranean ports, activists exercise in non-violent resistance to masked commandos storming aboard their ships with rifles, stun guns, tear gas and water cannons, trying to imagine helicopters hovering overhead and warships encircling them.

In Israeli territorial waters, navy commandos practice the takeover of vessels - this time in a manner not openly confrontational.

(Inter Press Service. Additional reporting by Barbara Slavin.)

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