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Ron Ben-Yishai  

 

Erdogan's miscalculation

Analysis: Turkish PM realized his aggressive policy against Israel was only causing him damage in West

Published: 03.24.13, 12:11 / Israel Opinion

Only last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Zionism to Fascism. His foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said around the same time that Israel was a lawless country. So what really led to the sudden reconciliation between the Turkish and Israeli governments at the current timing, after so many failed attempts to reach a redeeming formula that would be accepted both by Ankara and Jerusalem?

 

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The answer is that at the current timing several things happened together, leading to the turnabout, especially in Turkey. Israeli officials have been ready a long time ago, trying incessantly to reach an agreement on an apology over the May 2010 flotilla incident. But the Turks refused to accept the Israeli formula, and Israel – pressured by then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon – refused to relax the wordings of Attorney Joseph Ciechanover, Israel's representative on the UN's panel of inquiry into the flotilla affair.


ראש ממשלת טורקיה עם אבו מאזן. הסגר על עזה יימשך (צילום: רויטרס)

Erdogan and Abbas. Gaza siege to continue (Photo: Reuters)

 

The Turks also demanded that Israel lift the naval blockade over Gaza and pay damages to the victims' families, but the main thing was an unequivocal Turkish demand for a significant apology, despite the fact that the UN's Palmer Commission ruled explicitly that Israel's actions were legal, although it did use unreasonable force which led to the death of nine Turkish nationals. Indeed, those citizens used extreme violence against IDF soldiers and injured them, but they did not use firearms, and thus Israel was rebuked for using unreasonable force.

 

In any event, Turkey did not receive international legal backing. The Turks refused to accept the wordings of the Israeli apology, which were in fact an indirect apology for operational mistakes and willingness to establish a fund to compensate the families of the killed civilians, as long as the Turkish government is the one that pays them.

 

All that did not help, because Erdogan saw the conflict with Israel as an excellent opportunity to bolster his political status within his country, and mostly to be perceived as a regional leader. In 2010, Turkey was still at the height of its aspiration to become a regional power, as it was at the time of the Ottoman sultans.

 

Arab Spring stirred things up

This strategy, designed by Foreign Minister Davutoglu and warmly embraced by the Islamist Erdogan, was called Neo-Ottomanism. An important component in this strategy was zero friction with close and far neighbors, and it saw relations between Syria and Turkey warm up.

 

But the strong turmoil in the Arab world stirred things up, and the Turks failed in almost every diplomatic move – in Libya and mostly in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not approve of Erdogan's attempts to teach them how to conduct themselves politically either.

 

The Turks went from failure to failure in the Arab world, and saw that the persistent conflict with Israel was failing to bring them the political gain and status they had hoped for, yet it was causing them damage in NATO and Washington.

 

But that's not all. The inciting tongue-lashing by the Islamist Davutoglu and Erdogan in the global media against the State of Israel came back at them like a boomerang, and Erdogan was at least forced to apologize and even appeared to be softening his stance against Israel in an interview he gave to a Danish newspaper.


אובמה עם נתניהו ופרס. האמריקנים תכננו מראש (צילום: אבי אוחיון, לע"מ)

Obama with Peres and Netanyahu. Pre-planned by Americans (Photo: GPO)

 

In Israel the entire defense establishment, including the National Security Council, recommended that Netanyahu reach some sort of formula of apology to Turkey, and Netanyahu did make the effort and sent emissaries – but to no avail. The last time was last month, when the Turkish Foreign Ministry director-general and an Israeli emissary met in Geneva, but the ministers in Netanyahu's second government, Lieberman and Yaalon, said Israel should not capitulate to the Turks as their intention was to humiliate Israel and score at our expense.

 

Israel needs Turkey from many reasons, even if it is clear that as long as Erdogan and his party are the leaders – and that will probably last a long time – the relations will never be as warm as they used to be.

 

Another crucial factor in the building relationship was Washington, which has been trying to get Turkey and Israel to reconcile and cooperate again, especially since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. The Americans want to prevent a situation in which the civil war in Syria – and especially the country's chemical weapons – will spill into other countries. But the Americans are not in the region, and in order to stop the unwanted results of the civil war in Syria from reaching other countries in the region, quick action is required from its local allies, led by Israel, Turkey and Jordan.

 

Ties severed, trade increased

The US is also interested in stabilizing the region and preventing possible friction points so that it can focus on other strategic missions stemming from its new global policy, a policy which centers on the conflict with China, with North Korea and with Iran. So it was important for President Obama, and his people said so even before his visit, to bring about reconciliation between Netanyahu and Erdogan during the visit.

 

The strange thing is that during those three years of severed relations, the economic ties between Israel and Turkey continued uninterrupted. Israeli tourism to Turkey did record a significant decline, but the trade – including between the two countries' defense industries – increased.

 

Turkey also offered to help release Gilad Shalit at the time, and the head of Turkey's intelligence service offered his help to Israeli negotiator David Meidan and even tried to mediate between Israel and Hamas, so it was clear that this odd situation would eventually end in reconciliation.


הפצצה של צבא אסד בחלב. ארה"ב זקוקה לשיתוף פעולה ישראלי-טורקי (צילום: AP)

Assad army bombs Aleppo. US needs Israeli-Turkish cooperation (Photo: AP)

 

Obama's visit to Israel created the climax which allowed Erdogan to slightly relax his demands and not to insist on the three demands word for word, while Netanyahu took advantage of the visit's momentum to slightly relax the wording of the Israeli apology and give Erdogan a ladder to climb down from the tree of the demand to lift the Gaza blockade and compensate the Turkish families.

 

When there is good will, it seems diplomatic phraseology is not an obstacle. Erdogan simply realized that his inflammatory policy against Israel was not giving him the dividends he hoped for, but rather causing him damage in the West.

 

In general, Erdogan is in an appeasing mood today after reaching a ceasefire agreement with the Turkish regime's greatest enemies – the Kurds, the PKK movement. Only Wednesday, jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan declared that his people were prepared for a ceasefire and would return to their bases in northern Iraq, after a war which has been going on since 1984, claiming more than 40,000 victims.

 

Erdogan's main goal at the moment is to be elected president of Turkey (he cannot run for another term as prime minister), while changing the constitution so that the president will receive supreme executive authorities, like the US president. Reconciling with Israel as part of a gesture to the US president serves this move.

 

In Israel, the heads of the IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad support Netanyahu's move, even though it is clear to them that the relations with Turkey, especially in the fields of intelligence and security, will not be as intimate as they used to be, at least as long as Erdogan is in power.

 

 

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