Downward spiral in Turkish-Israeli ties

Downward spiral in Turkish-Israeli ties

JERUSALEM — The bad diplomatic news for Israel just kept getting worse.

First Turkey announced that it was slashing the level of its diplomatic ties with Israel to the second secretary level, giving the senior Israeli embassy staff 48 hours to leave the country. Turkey also said it was suspending all military ties with Israel.

Next the Turkish Embassy in Washington vowed that Turkey would pursue legal action against Israeli soldiers and officials who were involved in the deadly 2010 raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara. Then 40 Israeli travelers on a Tel Aviv-to-Istanbul flight were separated from the other passengers upon landing and subjected to humiliating searches.

Turkey’s actions came as the United Nations released the report of its Palmer committee, which investigated Israel’s actions during its May 2010 interception of a flotilla that was trying to break its blockade of Gaza. Israeli troops encountered violent resistance when they tried to board the Mavi Marmara, and the ensuing battle left eight Turkish citizens and one dual Turkish-American citizen dead.

The Palmer report found that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was legal and that Israeli commandos needed to use force as they came under attack on the Mavi Marmara. The report also found, however, that Israel used excessive force when boarding the ship.

Turkey has demanded an apology for the deaths of its citizens, but Israel has refused.

“We need not apologize for the fact that naval commandos defended their lives against an assault by violent IHT activists,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet this week, using the initials of the Turkish charity that sponsored the Mavi Marmara. “We need not apologize for the fact that we acted to stop the smuggling of weapons to Hamas, a terrorist organization that has already fired over 10,000 missiles, rockets and mortar rounds at our civilians. We need not apologize for the fact that we acted to defend our people, our children and our communities.”

Netanyahu then made a last-ditch attempt to head off Turkey’s decision to limit ties with Israel.

“I reiterate that the State of Israel expresses regret over the loss of life. I also hope that a way will be found to overcome the disagreement with Turkey,” he said. “Israel has never wanted a deterioration in its relations with Turkey; neither is Israel interested in such a deterioration now.”

The crisis in ties with Turkey could have far-reaching implications for Israel. Severing trade between Israel and Turkey, which is more than $3 billion annually, would have a negative impact on the Israeli economy.

Diplomatically, the crisis could badly affect Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Egypt this week to discuss deepening that country’s strategic relationship with Turkey.

The trip came amid growing opposition in Egypt to the longstanding peace treaty with Israel. Egypt’s military leaders could come under increasing pressure to follow Turkey and recall their ambassador from Israel.

“Erdogan will say to the Egyptians, ‘What are you doing for the Palestinians?’” Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, told JTA. “Egyptians will say, ‘Turkey is not even Arab, and they expelled the Israeli ambassador.’ It will add to the public pressure.”

Liel believes there is even a chance of a military confrontation between Israel and Turkey if, as expected, Israel signs a deal to export liquid natural gas to Cyprus, an island nation that is tensely divided between Greek and Turkish sectors.

“Those vessels will need to go through the Mediterranean, and Turkey will do whatever it can to stop them,” Liel said, adding that Turkey has 40,000 soldiers in the Turkish part of Cyprus.

Closer to home for Israelis, the crisis with Turkey could strengthen Hamas, which controls Gaza, and which Israel and the United States see as a terrorist state. Erdogan, an Islamist, has vigorously defended Hamas from those who say it is a terrorist group that should be isolated.

Erdogan has said that he wants to visit Gaza. If Egypt agrees to let him enter Gaza from its territory, it would represent a victory for Hamas and a further challenge to Israel.

Beyond the diplomatic fallout, Israel’s relationship with Turkey played an important psychological role. Tens of thousands of Israelis visit Turkey each year with package tours that even including the one-hour flight is cheaper than staying at hotels in Eilat. The relationship with Turkey also made Israelis feel connected to the wider Muslim world. Turkey was the first Muslim country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1949.

“We used to hold up the relationship with Turkey as an example of how Israel can have a relationship with a large Muslim country,” a senior Israeli official told JTA. “We’re certainly concerned about this now.”

In the early days of the state, there were very close ties with Turkey. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, even studied law in Turkey. Those diplomatic ties intensified in the 1980s and 1990s.

The senior Israeli official said there are two schools of thought in Israel surrounding Erdogan. One says that the deterioration in the relationship is specifically because of the flotilla incident and that if Israel apologized, the relationship would return to what it was.

The other school, which seems to be gaining ground, is that Erdogan sees himself as a potential leader of the Islamic world and is leading Turkey to become more religious and more Islam-identified. If that is true, then the flotilla incident is just an excuse to downgrade ties with Israel.

It seems unlikely that the relationship will improve anytime soon. Liel, the former ambassador, says a similar incident happened in 1980 after Israel passed the Jerusalem Law formalizing Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, which was captured in 1967.

Turkey then reacted exactly as it did this week — downgrading ties to the level of second secretary. Liel, then a second secretary, was sent to Ankara.

“For the five years I was there I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “Turkish officials wouldn’t even come to Israel Independence Day celebrations.”

It took 12 years for Turkey to agree to reinstate the Israeli ambassador. After the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Turkey reinstated the Israeli ambassador and accepted the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador. Israeli officials say they hope that this time it won’t take 12 years to get their ambassador back to Turkey.