Middle East Policy Council

Commentary

Israel-Turkey Relations Remain Strained

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Two years after the Mavi Marmara tragedy — when nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli soldiers while aboard a Gaza-bound ship — Turkish-Israeli relations have remained at a standstill. Turkey has demanded an apology from the Israeli government, while Tel Aviv refuses to take responsibility for what it considers an act of self-defense on the part of its soldiers. Now, despite being warned against pursuing legal proceedings aimed at Israeli officials, a Turkish high court has issued arrest warrants for four former Israeli military leaders. In turn, Israel has hardened its position and has now promised swift economic and diplomatic retaliation.

Reporting on news of the arrest warrant, the Turkish daily Sabah elaborates on the order: “Israel's former Chief of General Staff Rau Gabi Ashkenazi and three other retired senior military commanders are accused of involvement in the raid and are referred to as ‘fugitive suspects.’ The indictment seeks life sentences for all four of the commanders. With warrants out for their arrest, this basically means that should the suspects attempt to enter Turkey, they will be subject for detention.”

But according to a statement reported on the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, General Ashkenazi is quoted as saying “‘If the price for standing my ground is not visiting Turkey, I’ll pay the price … Israel’s relationship with Turkey is important as both countries have common interests, which include maintaining stability in the Middle East. I’m sure that eventually common sense will prevail….From the moment the affair broke out, I chose to stand up in every forum, often alone, to defend the IDF soldiers who performed their duty on the field for the Israeli nation.’”

For Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yoaz Hendel, the menacing specter of Iran is never far away: “Currently there are three military powers in the Middle East: Turkey, Israel and Iran. The decision to replace the Turkish alliance with Israel with an alliance with Iran has been taken a long time ago....The strategic damage occurred when Erdogan took power....There is no need to produce a head-on confrontation, but if we are right, we must say it out loud. It’s important in order to make it clear to the Turks that red lines do exist, rather than only a discourse of apologies and compensation. This is also important for us, so we don’t delude ourselves like some experts do.”

Judging from some of the statements coming out of Israel, some red lines have already been crossed: “Israel has begun to formulate ways of retaliation due to the acceptance of Turkey's indictment on the May 31st, 2010 raid by Israeli forces on the aid flotilla Mavi Marmara. In response to Turkey's request that Israel's former Chief of Staff and main actor in the Mavi Marmara raid be tried for life, Israel has decided to take on a number of economic decisions that are not in Turkey's best interest. Kadima Party deputy Nachman Shai has sent a letter to Minister of Energy and Water Uzi Landau requesting Turkish firms be forbidden from entering tenders in Israel.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial has also suggested that Turkey’s motives go beyond the flotilla raid and therefore an apology would do little, if any, good: “many have used the occasion of the indictment — and the anniversary of the incident — to argue that the time has come to apology to the Turks....It is naïve to believe that if only Israel were to apologize for the Mavi Marmara raid, relations with Turkey would return to normal. True, Israel might score a small diplomatic victory by apologizing and proving to the world that it is Turkish intransigence and radicalism — not an Israeli refusal to apologize — that are the real obstacles to normalization. But Israel also has an obligation to itself to maintain a modicum of self-respect and deterrence power.”

UAE’s The National, in an editorial on the subject of the arrest warrant, seems to agree, at least on the fact that the disagreements go beyond the flotilla incident: “To be sure, the deteriorating relationship is in part, symbolically at least, down to Israel's refusal to apologize for its attack on the aid flotilla. But more pertinent is Israel's blockade of Gaza, settlement expansion in the West Bank and general mistreatment of Palestinians. Condemning such policies plays well for Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan at home. Benjamin Netanyahu's government shows no signs of backing down in any of its standoffs in the Middle East. A serious reconsideration of its belligerent stance towards Ankara, and its treatment of the Palestinians, would have benefits for Arabs under occupation and do much to improve stability throughout the region.”

Given the difficult and tumultuous period the region is going through, the tensions between Israel and Turkey only complicate what is already a challenging and volatile part of the world. As Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin puts it: “The stage we are at today is as follows: Yesterday Turkey withdrew its entire diplomatic mission from Syria, joining the Western alliance. A few months ago, Ankara had already downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel to the lowest possible level. Also yesterday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed its support for its soldiers, including the chief of staff, who are subject to a Turkish arrest warrant because of the Mavi Marmara tragedy, amid barbed words with Iran over its nuclear program. And today is the second anniversary of the Mavi Marmara raid, which will be marked with a rally in the heart of Istanbul organized by the same aid organization that organized the flotilla, the IHH. There is no sign of decreasing political tension in this neighborhood.”

Turkey’s growing role extends beyond the Middle East. As the Khaleej Times editorial rightly notes, “Ankara stands at a critical phase of its history and this has to be kept in mind as the NATO and the EU move ahead for consensual talks. Turkey’s recent brawl with Israel and the lowering of ties had already strained its ties with the West, resulting in distancing from many of the prescriptions that the United States and Europe coined for the Muslim world. Similarly, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s spontaneousness in terms of West’s policies on Libya, Egypt and Syria has granted it with a unique bargaining position. Turkey, by ensuring that it isn’t carried away when it comes to survival of the regime in Damascus and the impact it will have on militant organizations, Hamas and the Hezbollah, has played a masterstroke in real-politics.”

Clearly, the Turkish-Israeli relationship is not as strong as it once was. But there are those, like Today’s Zaman’s Lamiya Adilgize, who look beyond the rhetoric to make the argument that “Israel’s bilateral relations with Turkey, though extremely strained, have not broken down completely. According to data released by the Israeli Statistics Bureau, Israeli exports to Turkey in August 2010 increased by 44 percent compared to the previous year. Turkish exports to Israel increased by 42 percent during the same period.”


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