Joshua WALKER** & Emiliano ALESSANDRI* GMFUS
WASHINGTON — The United Nations’ recent report investigating the deaths of nine Turks when Israel stopped a flotilla trying to break a Gaza blockade has brought an end to a suspenseful episode in Turkish-Israeli relations. But with closure (of a sort) comes an opening (of a sort). We might be nearing one of the greatest breaks in the region as both governments react to the report’s content.
Now is not the time for these longstanding allies to escalate yet another crisis in an already challenging, unstable, and dangerous region. As democracies with deep links to the transatlantic community, Turkey and Israel must recognize that they both have vital stakes in the stabilization of the Middle East through the establishment of more representative regimes in the region. Both have the same goal of helping other countries integrate into the broader international economy to boost much-needed growth and development while also improving humanitarian standards in the region to international standards. Instead, the latest developments distract everyone from these commonalties toward unhelpful divergences.
Ankara reacted even before the report was officially presented by downgrading its relations with Israel, expelling the Israeli ambassador, and freezing all trade agreements. It also suspended all military cooperation immediately, stopping just short of military threats with ominous promises to “take whatever measures it deems necessary in order to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Israel’s reaction was far less dramatic but no less worrying – near silence. A formal apology was always out of the question for hardliners in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, but even the expression of regret and compensation for the loss of Turkish lives, which had been previously offered, never materialized. To date, Israel has done little to assuage Turkey’s considerable anger over the deaths of its citizens. This is of concern at a time when Israel finds itself even further isolated and challenged as the crumbling edifice of regional order is being swept away by the Arab Spring.
For sure, Israel’s security cannot be negotiated. Israel is facing the reality of growing international isolation, which has only been aggravated by its timid, almost reluctant, response to the Arab Spring. Despite uncertainty about the nature of emerging regimes, the process underway promises, in the long term, to democratize the region, possibly providing a firmer basis for lasting peace and stabilization if the transatlantic community can work together. Although Israel has multiple reasons to resent Turkey and its policies, it should give Ankara a chance before giving up and calling the relationship off. After all, just years ago, Israel let Turkey take the lead in negotiating with Syria and playing down occasional rifts caused by domestic posturing on both sides. Israel appreciated Turkey’s role as a mediator and pacifier in the region then. That role is even more critical now.
One option for Israel would be to accommodate some of Turkey’s main demands on the flotilla crisis to defuse the current situation while making it clear that lifting the Gaza blockade, which has now been recognized as legal by the UN for the first time, is only possible as part of a broader regional deal supported by the West. At the same time, as a longtime ally of Jerusalem, Ankara must make clear that any agreement or initiative made by Turkey with Israel’s enemies in the region, starting with Hamas, Iran, or even the new Egypt, will not be directed at Jerusalem and would jeopardize Turkish cooperation if they are couched in revisionist terms.
Clarifying the direction of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East by facilitating a rapprochement with Israel is in everyone’s long-term interests. After initial contradictions and hesitations, Turkey seems to have adjusted its broader Middle East strategy, putting it more in line with the West, though more can still be done. On Libya, Turkey’s reversal has been complete. On Syria, there has been an important, albeit incomplete, process of convergence toward putting pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime. Syria has exposed deep divides between Turkish and Iranian approaches, which the transatlantic community has welcomed. With Turkey’s most recent decision to contribute to the NATO missile defense shield by stationing U.S. radar in its territory, Turkish-Iranian relations don’t appear to be getting any closer. When taken as a whole, these developments should encourage Israel to seek a rapprochement with Turkey.
During the Arab Spring, Turkey has emerged feeling stronger and more confident and has assumed a larger role in the region on the strength of its so-called “Turkish model.” But Turkey’s rhetoric and stand on Israel hurts its unique role as mediator and further weakens its “zero problems with neighbors” policy. And it seems to have more to do with domestic and regional posturing than principles.
Actively engaging Turkey and encouraging Ankara’s activism to live up to the principles set forth in its ambitious foreign policy will be a new challenge for the West. Trying to scold Ankara will only generate backlash. But an intelligent, forward-looking discussion of the respective strategic interests would showcase the need for cooperation in order to shift the balance of the Arab Spring from challenge to opportunity.
Neither Turkey nor Israel is better off with the new status of relations. Neither is the rest of the West nor any other supporters of democracy in the region. Turkish-Israeli relations have been downgraded at precisely the moment that more diplomacy is needed.
*Emiliano Alessandri is Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Mediterranean Policy Program in Washington.
**Joshua Walker is also Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.