Privately and quietly, in discussions among officials and analysts in both Israel and Turkey, recognition of the need to resume a positive working relationship is emerging. As the governments in Jerusalem and Ankara independently evaluate the turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East, they are finding only two countries that have a combination of functioning-albeit imperfect-democracies, stable governance, substantial security apparatuses and thriving economies. Unfortunately, that is not all they share. Both, Turkey and Israel are handicapped by their own misguided political rhetoric and posturing when it comes to their bilateral relationship. In the fallout over the flotilla incident last May, Turkish-Israeli relations-which were already declining-hit rock-bottom, and have since failed to significantly regain their footing. However, the many shared challenges that both nations face in the region today could serve to bridge the gaps that have kept their reconciliation at bay, and re-shape Israeli-Turkish relations amidst a rapidly-evolving Middle East.
Rather than serve to investigate the flotilla incident of May 31, 2010, the findings of the reports issued by Israel's Turkel Commission, and the subsequent Turkish report, only reinforced each side's ensconced positions. The conclusions were as clearly predictable as they were contradictory: The Israeli commission stated that "by clearly resisting capture, the Mavi Marmara had become a military objective" and that "the passengers were to blame for the violence." Meanwhile, the Turkish report stated that Israeli soldiers used "excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate force." The publication of the conflicting conclusions effectively overran the goodwill that had begun to generate in both countries following Turkey's assistance to Israel in battling the Mount Carmel fire in early December. Therefore, the Israel-Turkey status quo has stood firm. Turkey continues to demand that Israel apologize for the flotilla incident and compensate the families of the nine Turkish citizens killed aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara. Israel continues to refuse to do so, while openly worrying about Turkey's pledge to deepen its ties with Iran and Syria.
But could this be changing? Last month, the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), an organization whose directors are considered to be close to Prime Minister Reccep Teyyep Erdogan, held a prominent panel on the state of Turkey-Israel relations with Israeli and Turkish panelists. A short while ago, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is remembered for his utter lack of diplomatic savvy for his treatment of then-Turkish Ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol began to change his tone. He told the European Policy Centre in Brussels that Israel and Turkey should stop blaming one another and instead work to mend relations, even while continuing to absolve Israel of any wrongdoing. Indeed, in Jerusalem and Ankara, more and more officials are beginning to realize that amidst a region that is likely to be torn by prolonged uncertainty and conflict, it is in the interests of both nations to achieve an accommodation that would place their relations on solid footing.
The two sides are not only beginning to recognize their diplomatic follies. Other key ingredients falling into place suggest now is the time to improve relations. Israel-Turkey business ties had been considered unaffected by the worsening political relations. But more and more businesses are finding it cumbersome to launch new ventures in the context of the ongoing political tension. With economic uncertainty gripping neighboring countries, a renewed push for strengthened economic ties would be prudent. Meanwhile, Turkey will face a nationwide election on June 12. But with the AKP comfortably ahead in the polls (receiving 50 percent of the votes in polls) in comparison to the opposition CHP (polling at about 23 percent), the expectation that criticism of Israel may be used as a political tool during the campaign season has dampened. That Prime Minister Erdogan has largely been silent in his public chastising of Israel in recent weeks is particularly telling. So too is the growing realization in Turkey of the need to maintain its foreign policy options come the day after the election, including holding out the possibility of strengthening Turkey-Israel ties.
Turkish bureaucrats with longstanding ties with their Israeli counterparts have a particular understanding that for Turkey to extend its influence in the reshaping of the Middle East and beyond, it must improve its ties with Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the makeup of Israel's government today is more conducive to an accommodation. The departure of Uzi Arad, a fierce critic of Ankara, as national security advisor removes a measure of criticism from Prime Minister Netanyahu's ears. At the same time, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, another fierce opponent to reconciling with Turkey, has become increasingly preoccupied (and weakened) by his pending indictment on corruption charges. In addition, there is an urgent need for Israel to improve its international standing, and its relations with the United States following the U.S. veto of a resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning West Bank settlement activity. This suggests that a renewed push to achieve a rapprochement with Turkey would be beneficial for the Netanyahu government. Finally, perhaps the most important ingredient to improving relations is also in place: the passage of time. The raw emotions that accompanied the violent flotilla event have begun to subside, even if the nationalist fervor that was generated as a result has not. In the context of the regional unrest, and the growing sense on both sides that each must acknowledge the need to look forward, rather backward, the current moment could be exploited to begin to lay the foundation for improved relations-but how?
A balance must be achieved between both nations' desire to save face. Neither side will be willing to make a major concession that gives the appearance that they have caved to the others' demands. Turkey would certainly oppose doing so in the context of an election season; Israel because it wants to avoid appearing weak by making hasty concessions amidst the regional turmoil. That is why, in the coming days, when the office of the United Nations Secretary General will publish its own version of the events aboard the Mavi Marmara, Israel and Turkey should focus not on concessions, but on reaching a "new understanding" with regard to their relations going forward.
Reaching such an understanding will require ongoing back-channel dialogue to agree upon language addressing the flotilla episode in terms that recognize the conclusions provided by each side, and the need for appropriate compensation of the victims. Agreed language need not focus on explicit placement of wrongdoing so much as on the broad recognition of transgressions and the need to provide an alternative path forward based on their shared interests in a troubled region. In this respect, rather than use their respective reports on the flotilla incident to drive a deeper wedge between their positions, each side should acknowledge the perspective of the other as part of the path forward. Achieving progress in this regard will be especially important in advance of the publication of the UN report, to ensure that it serves as an endnote to this dark chapter.
In the wake of the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, many analysts have looked to Turkey as a potential model for Egypt, and the reshaping Arab Middle East at large. Of course, each nation has its own individual attributes, but it is true that Turkey, as a democracy balancing Islamic tradition with modernity and economic growth, does provide part of the illustration of what a new Middle East might look like. But even more than a model, Turkey should serve to provide important lessons to the peoples of the Middle East: For the reshaping Arab world, the lessons should be that the formation of democracy and its balance with Islam, is an ongoing, arduous process, but can ultimately lead to economic prosperity and renewed confidence for the peoples of the Middle East. For Israel the lesson should be equally clear: In a region that may soon look more and more like Turkey, it is time to make peace with the original.
In extolling the virtues of relations between democracies in his book A Durable Peace, Binyamin Netanyahu wrote: "The whole idea of politics in democratic states is the nonviolent resolution of conflict - not harmonious agreement, not even tolerable disagreement, but the dynamic reconciliation of opposing views and conflicting interests." That is exactly the kind of understanding that is needed between Turkey and Israel. It is time for Netanyahu to act on his own advice.
*This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on 4/1/11, and can be accessed at http://new.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=214669