Turkish Israeli Relations: The Lost Decade


The recent history of the Turkish-Israeli relationship, amounts to unnecessary bickering despite a clear convergence of interests. Contrary to popular belief in such critical institutions such as U.S. Congress, the interests of both countries are strongly aligned but ideological disagreements in combination with bad luck and short-sighted populist policies on both sides are responsible for a lost decade.


This negative spiral symbolically started on January 30th, in 2009, when then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan participated in a panel discussion with the late Israeli President Shimon Peres. Understandably annoyed by the moderator, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and upset with Israel’s policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, Prime Minister Erdoğan lost control and stormed of the stage after repeatedly shouting the now infamous words, “One Minute!”


As some of my readers will recall, I was the Turkish ambassador in Israel at the time and had a first row seat in witnessing the relationship disintegrate.


The relationship was already strained because Israel had just conducted the “Cast Lead” military operation in Gaza, right after a historical meeting between Prime Minister Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Ankara on December 22, 2008. Olmert’s failure to positively return Erdoğan’s attempts to mediate between Syria and Israel, followed by the Israeli attack on Gaza, was the real reason behind the breaking of the relationship. Erdoğan understandably never forgave Olmert for negating on his promises to return Erdoğan’s calls to mediate. A few years later, when I was serving as the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., Olmert privately confessed to me that he owes an apology to Erdoğan for not keeping his promises.


The quick deterioration of the relationship after these events might suggest otherwise but the state of affairs between the two countries was in fact enjoying a peak before these series of events.


Just before the “One Minute” incident, Abdullah Gül, then President of the Republic of Turkey, was even planning an official state visit to Israel and the presidential advance team had already visited Israel to prepare the visit. Foreign Policy insiders considered Turkish-Israeli political relations as exemplary for the rest of the region and I could name countless examples of ongoing bilateral cooperation and coordination.


The importance of the military angle of the relationship is difficult to overstate; not just for the two countries but for peace and stability in the entire region. One striking example of the level that this cooperation had reached since the mid nineties was Turkey’s purchase of 10 state-of-the-art UAVs (Herons) from Israel. This procurement resonates even today as exemplified by Turkey‘s impressive advancement in defense capabilities in general and UAV technologies more particularly.


But the relationship did not rely solely on military cooperation as notable integration existed on other fields as well. Perhaps most tellingly, the economic relationship was thriving and never became subservient to the political relationship. During my tenure as Ambassador the bilateral trade volume was around 3,4 billion US dollars then. Our objective was to raise this number to 5 billion US dollars in five years. We managed to raise total trade by 60% to 5.7 billion US dollars despite all the political turmoil.


Following the now infamous encounter between Erdoğan and Peres, a second blow to the relationship materialized on May 31st, 2010 when a flotilla of 6 ships led by the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara tried to breach the maritime embargo of Gaza. The flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli Navy and 10 Turkish civilian activists were killed by Israeli soldiers during the operation. Not surprisingly this incident caused enormous uproar in Turkey and was strongly condemned by the government. Obviously, no other country could have reacted differently to the military targeting of unarmed citizens. The incident undermined all our efforts to mend fences after 2009 Davos incident.


For a long time both countries froze political relations but finally we are seeing positive steps to recover from this lost decade. I am one among many in my country who believe that we have more in common than we care to admit. Besides shared cultural bonds and mutual interests on many pivotal areas, another reason that should facilitate the current rapprochement is the simple fact that no divergence of interest exists between our two countries. The main source of tension simply stems from the Palestinian issue and perceived ideological issues.


While the Palestinian plight is important from a humanitarian point of view, we should keep in mind that we are better able to negotiate improved conditions for Palestinians if the bilateral relationship is thriving and mutual interests exists on other fronts. Keeping in mind our strategic interests as well as the positive spillover effect of strong Turkish Isreali relations with third parties such as the EU and the U.S., I believe three steps need to be taken:


First, meaningful diplomatic relationship should be resumed without further delay. Political leaders should keep in mind that without professional engagement it will prove hard to restore confidence on an institutional level and to mend fences in a way that lasts. In 2016, partly thanks to efforts of the Obama-Biden administration, Israel has taken a courageous decision and apologized to Turkey because of Mavi Marmara tragedy. Today similar confidence building measures are needed on all institutional levels.


Secondly, both sides should free themselves of their ideological reservations and base policy priorities on real interests rather than surrender to short term populist temptations. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how the national interests of both countries in the Eastern Mediterranean could have been served if both sides would have based their decisions on pratical wisdom rather than dogmatic ideology.


Thirdly, both Turkey and Israel should resist the tendency to allow the relationship to be taken hostage by the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian issue.There are justifiable historical reasons for Turkey to feel a responsibility to find a just solution to the Palestinian problem. However, Turkey cannot contribute anything to a future solution of that decades-old problem unless it enjoys relational leverage with Israel. Similarly, Israel needs to distance herself from emotional fears and return to the realization that Turkey is the most meaningful friend it enjoys in the region.


While it is fair to qualify the last decade of the bilateral as a lost one, I am very optimistic about its future. It is time to make up for last time

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