Israel and Turkey are talking — but are they listening?

Israel and Turkey are talking — but are they listening?

The “phone call” on the tarmac in Israel arranged by President Obama between the prime ministers of Turkey and Israel appeared to be a watershed event. There was a huge upsurge in hope that this would lead to a new and warmer era in Turkey-Israel relations. Obama deserves a great deal of praise for facilitating the “phone call.”

However, the whole transaction quickly and regretfully appeared to presage further difficulties in the countries’ relations. Now it seems that they are stuck somewhere in purgatory.

The agreement engendered by the “phone call” had the following components: an apology by Israel for its response to the Gaza flotilla operation in May 2010, Israel’s compensation for the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, and the easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. In turn, Turkish courts would drop lawsuits against Israeli soldiers involved in the incident, and diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel would be fully reinstated.

One month later, negotiations to work out the compensation issue have been delayed. Press reports indicate that Israel and Turkey are far apart on the compensation to be paid by Israel to the families of those who died on the Mavi Marmara (Israel apparently wants to offer $100,000 per family; Turkey wants $1 million). In addition, lawsuits against the Israeli soldiers are still going forward.

As for diplomatic relations, Turkey seems to be taking the position that the outstanding issues (including lifting, rather than just easing, the Gaza blockade) must be resolved before diplomatic relations can be restored.

Returning the ambassadors and restoring full diplomatic relations have been used as sort of a “stick” to resolve substantive issues. The whole idea of diplomatic relations is to have ambassadors in place even when relations are rocky. The United States and the Soviet Union had diplomatic relations and ambassadors in place even in the toughest of times.

The deeper question is whether all outstanding issues must be resolved before normal diplomatic relations can be reinstated between Turkey and Israel — even if those relations will not likely return to the levels seen before everything fell apart.

Another concern is that Turkey may desire a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute in advance of the restoration of full diplomatic relations. Also, Turkey may want to serve as a broker of the Middle East peace process. In light of Turkey’s advocacy for Hamas, and for the Palestinians’ bid for non-member observer status at the U.N., it is very difficult to see Turkey serving as a neutral broker. The US would presumably have to pressure Israel to accept Turkey’s active involvement in the negotiations; perhaps Obama promised Turkey a major role in the peace process as part of arranging the “phone call.”

However, the idea that full political relations between Turkey and Israel somehow rests on Israel agreeing to a Turkey- and US-brokered peace solution is a non-starter.

One bright spot on the horizon relates to energy. Israel has some potentially huge resource finds; arranging to export these resources via a pipeline to Turkey is a terrific idea. The Turkish energy minister noted recently that cooperation between Turkey and Israel may result from the thawing of relations; this would be a major benefit for both countries. It might also deflect Israel’s interest in a joint venture with Cyprus on developing energy resources in the Mediterranean – an undertaking that sparked, and will continue to provoke, Turkey’s displeasure. Israel’s special envoy on energy said at an energy conference in Turkey, “can we use energy; can we use gas beyond the commercial value of it, in the service of politics, in the service of diplomacy?” This may very well occur.

Turkey and Israel need each other, and both need the U.S. — especially with the crisis in Syria. It may be, however, that the days of such tripartite cooperation are over – perhaps we will see, instead, US-Turkish cooperation, linked with US engagement with Israel. This will not work as well as all three countries working together to achieve common objectives.

Regretfully, it does not seem that Turkey and Israel will ever return to the strong defense and security links they had in the past. But while we may not get an entente between Turkey and Israel, we at least need a détente, a reduction in tension – because there is too much at stake. It is imperative that the ambassadors be returned to their posts forthwith with full diplomatic relations restored. The United States should continue to use its good offices to make this happen immediately.

“We in Israel are sitting right on” a “thin line,” wrote a former Israeli brigadier-general in the Jerusalem Post. “Apologies like the one Netanyahu gave [Turkey’s prime minister] are apparently necessary to keep the thin line from breaking. But the future holds many more difficulties in the relationship between the two countries.” 

Let us hope that the future holds in store the restoration of good relations between Turkey and Israel, or at least relations that are stable and non-confrontational. This will provide benefits to both Turkey and Israel – and the region and the world require this.

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