Commentary

Israel and Turkey on the Mend

Middle East In Focus

While the Israeli-Turkish relationship had been on the decline for some time, the killing by the Israeli Defense Forces of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara in May 2010 made that decline even sharper. Despite recent attempts to revive the relationship and some hopeful signs that the two countries might adequately address their concerns regarding the flotilla “incident,” the road ahead looks more daunting than ever. During this past week, various commentators from Israel, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region have expressed conflicting views as to what each country should do to move the relationship forward. Moreover, Israeli actions in response to the attempted “flytilla” have invited further scrutiny of the Israeli government and the plight of the Palestinian people.

Commentaries in two of the leading Israeli newspapers have made it clear that Israel has no reason to beg for an apology.  Ehud Toledano writes in Haaretz, “In the assessment of those who believe that the demands should be met, Jerusalem needs Ankara more than Ankara needs Jerusalem and therefore every effort should be made in order not to upset the Turkish government, especially the man at its head, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.... Normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey will not mean the resumption of any alliance, but at most a change in rhetoric.... Therefore, the main question is, why should Israel get down on its hands and knees and apologize? What is the return that it may receive in return for the humiliation in its political standing in the eyes of the Turkish elites, who will not consider this a gesture, but a withdrawal and a clear sign of weakness?”

Likewise, in the Israeli daily Ynet, Manfred Gerstenfeld is concerned about the long-term legacy of an official apology to Turkey and the precedent it might set. According to Gerstenfeld,  “In the context of current attempts to end Turkish-Israeli tension, there remains the Turkish demand that Israel apologize for the death of nine people killed by the IDF on the Mavi Marmara at the end of May 2010. If Israel were to apologize, Erdogan would avoid losing face after his frequent demands that Israel should ‘admit its guilt.’ Israeli appeasers contend that apologies are only words.... An Israeli apology — however limited — has far more negative aspects than it seems at first sight.... These apologies will remain well documented for future generations. Apologizing to Turkey over the flotilla incident thus means distorting official Israeli history forever.”

The Turkish press, on the other hand, gave voice to the hope that the relationship between the two countries was on the mend again. For example, Alon Ben-Meir wonders in an op-ed for Today’s Zaman whether “a Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is imminent,” adding, “With the Arab Spring, the shared strategic interests of Jerusalem and Ankara are becoming ever clearer, particularly with the ongoing unrest in neighboring Syria.... The tensions between Israel and Turkey could be imminently washed away by a perfect storm that has emphasized Israel and Turkey’s shared interests.... As the Arab world takes to the streets in search of democracy, the two established democratic nations of the region now have a unique opportunity to work together to serve as pillars of stability and to return to the work of advancing security and peace in a region gripped by chaos.”

However, once Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman slammed the door on the possibility of any Israeli apology it became clear that no such thawing of the relationship would be forthcoming. Lieberman’s remark has irked many in Turkey, who have seen their country’s power in the region rising, making Turkey an indispensable ally for Israel. Murat Yetkin explains in the Hurriyet Daily News that in relation to the bilateral discussions on the subject of the flotilla incident, “The word which was looked for would ‘sound like an apology in Turkish and not sound like an open apology in Hebrew’ in order to satisfy the prime ministers of both countries, who have obvious commitments to their people on the crisis.... Last week’s efforts by the United Nations were pronounced void by Erdogan’s words on Saturday, who said that Turkey would never accept anything less than an apology, compensation and lifting of the embargo on Gaza on humanitarian material.... Tel Aviv should be in need of assessing the changing regional balances in its relations with Turkey, the only other Western-oriented democracy in the region.”

Among the regional news media, it was perhaps the Oman Tribune editorial that best summed up the views of the countries in the neighborhood, declaring in the aftermath of Lieberman’s outburst, “Israel’s leaders are living in the realm of imbeciles. Otherwise, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would never have said that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan had “shut the door” on reconciliation. On the contrary, it is Israel which has slammed the door on reconciliation with Turkey, with whom it once had cozy relations, by contemptuously spurning Erdogan’s demand for an apology for the killing of eight Turks and a Turkish-American on board a Turkish ship attempting to break the blockade of Gaza.... Most countries keep Israel at a distance and touch it with only a barge pole. The latest example is Turkey. And it would not be a surprise if Israel is punished for its criminal acts of asphyxiating the peace process and standing in the way of the statehood aspirations of the Palestinians.”

It was this same sentiment, albeit in a more direct tone, that was expressed by Khalid Amayreh on the Hamas-supportive Qassam website commenting on the ongoing Israeli blockade against Gaza and the repeated attempts by activists on ships or airplanes to break that blockade: “Recent Israeli behavior toward a host of issues and events portrays a state in the throes of an existential anxiety. For example, the clearly hysterical response by the Israeli government to the mobilization of a few ships carrying humanitarian aid to blockaded Gazans caricatured a state that reacts in a phobic manner to dangers and threats that don’t really exist.... In a few decades, our world is likely to undergo deep, historical changes that would be very bad for Israel and Zionism. Some of the harbingers of these changes are already looming, while others are yet to emerge. Then Zionism will most certainly face its agonizing moment of death and extinction. As to the Palestinians, the victims of dispossession, ethnic cleansing and systematic persecution, they must have an enduring vigor that goes beyond day-to-day assessment of events.”

Uri Avnery worries that knee-jerk reactions by the Israeli government against attempts to break the blockade are not typical of a normal state. On the Palestinian news website Amin, Avnery insists “All they wanted was to go to Bethlehem and Gaza, which can only be reached by crossing Israeli territory. Almost a thousand police officers were mobilized to meet that threat. All of these unthinking knee-jerk reactions: We must be strong. Everywhere there lurk mortal dangers. Israel must defend itself. Otherwise there will be a second Holocaust.... Unfortunately, the costs of paranoia are very high. So let us start to behave like sane people. Let the little boats go to Gaza. Let arrivals at Ben-Gurion airport go to the Palestinian territories and pick olives, if that’s what they want. Even if we do behave like a normal nation, Israel will continue to exist. Really!”

For Haim Zisovitch, “Exaggerated Israeli preparations for a pro-Palestinian fly-in play into our foes’ hands.” In an op-ed for the Israeli Ynet, Zisovitch opines “We see a media-covered visit by the prime minister at the airport in order to ‘scrutinize’ the preparations for the ‘provocation fly-in,’ followed by a meeting of ‘senior officials’ with the minister, police chief and Shin Bet director, in order to ‘discuss the deployment,’ with the PM providing ‘final instructions’ on handling the flying protestors.... This is not a deployment, but rather, hysteria. Fly-in organizers can go ahead, cancel their tickets and save their money. The Israeli government did the job for them. There is no need to crowd into tourist class and eat pre-packaged meals in order to hold up signs at the terminal. Israel’s PR establishment is offering its fine services free of charge.”

For the Saudi Arab News editorial the solution to the current debacle is to end the Gaza blockade: “The ongoing episodes of nonviolent missions aiming to visit the West Bank and Gaza have exposed Israel's draconian anti-Palestinian policies and its concerted attempt to choke off access to Palestinian areas. This is all the more worrisome and unfair because Palestinians have no airport of their own, and Israel controls the borders of the occupied West Bank.... The proper way for Israel to avoid trouble would be to end its illegal blockade of Gaza and end its illegal occupation of the rest of Palestine to ensure an unfettered flow of aid, and to not interfere with humanitarians going about their lawful business.”

Not everyone sees the matter in the same light, however. In an op-ed for the conservative Israel National News website, Ruth King asserts “The authentic Palestine Freedom Flotilla set sail in 1947, with the survivors of Hitler's hell on earth. No one cared when the British killed, wounded or incarcerated them.... I speak of a real Palestine freedom flotilla,' that fleet of ancient and ramshackle ships and the valiant volunteer crews that transported the wretched survivors of the Holocaust to Palestine in defiance of the perverse British blockade between 1946 and 1948.”

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.