Israel-Turkey Policy Dialogue: A Summary of Turkish Perspectives

 
Israeli-Turkish Relations and the Paradigm Shift in the Middle East

Mitvim and the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT Center)

Istanbul, Turkey, September 2012
 
In September 2012 a policy dialogue was held in Istanbul between Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT Center), in partnership with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. The meeting was attended from the Israeli side by Dr. Nimrod Green, Dr. Alon Liel, Ms. Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi and Mr. Arik Segal. From the Turkish side it was attended by the heads of the GPoT Center, researchers, senior journalists, former ambassadors and retired generals. The meeting discussed the consequences of the Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis as well as the chances of mending Israeli-Turkish relations. On the margins of the meetings, members of the Israeli delegation met a Syrian opposition member residing in Turkey, with the assistance of Turkish mediation.

Participants in the meeting discussed the findings of a public opinion survey, initiated by Mitvim (and conducted by the Rafi Smith Institute on 23-26 August 2012), which found that a majority of the Israeli public thinks that Israel should take action to improve its relationship with Turkey, including apologizing for operational errors that occurred during the flotilla events, as part of a comprehensive agreement to restore the relationship. The survey also found that most of the public thinks that restoring the relationship would contribute to Israel's international effort against Iran, and that the Israeli government is not doing enough in that regard. The survey's findings were reported by Arad Nir on the main edition of Channel 2 News.

The policy dialogue in Istanbul drew broad press coverage in Turkey and a summary of the coverage appears at the end of this document. Following are the main points raised by our Turkish colleagues during the discussions with them:

A. The Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis

Israel's current foreign policy is regarded in Turkey as one that does not view Israel as part of the Middle East, that has given up on the possibility of reaching understandings and agreements with the different parties in the area, and that is having difficulty accepting the processes of change in the Arab countries and their new regimes.

The assumption in Turkey is that the ball is currently in the Israeli court as far as restoring the bi-lateral relationship. The Israeli refusal to apologize to Turkey raises the question of whether Israel has actually given up on its relationship with Turkey. Has Israel concluded after two years of severed ties that it can manage without Turkey, and prefers to rely on its new allies – Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania – even though they are marginal and weak countries?

The Turks believe that the tension and uncertainty in the region are factors that could have brought the two countries closer together. However, there is doubt in Turkey whether under the present circumstances Israel and Turkey still share common interests in the region, considering their very different responses to the Arab Spring and their fundamental differences about the Palestinian issue.

It is evident that Israel and Turkey view the region through different lenses, with the possible exception of their common fear of Iran. According to the Turks, only a fundamental change in Israel's foreign policy might create genuine common interests between the countries. Furthermore, the absence of channels of coordination, a political dialogue and strategic cooperation between the countries obstructs their ability to examine the changing regional situation together, understand each other's positions better and exchange messages with each other.

This is particularly evident on the Syrian issue. The ongoing crisis in Syria poses difficulties for Turkey and its government. It is becoming a critically important political and strategic issue for the Turkish leadership. The Turks do not understand what Israel's position is toward Syria: does Israel prefer the continued rule of Assad or his demise and the subsequent uncertainty, which might lead to a more chaotic and possibly more Islamic Syria?

It is widely believed in Turkey that Israel is interested in Assad's continued rule and therefore there is a significant disparity between Turkey and Israel on that issue. If Israel's approach is otherwise, and it supports the fall of Assad and international action against his regime, it is important for Turkey to know that. It could provide an opportunity for discrete strategic cooperation between the countries and create a more comfortable political climate for the resolution of the Israeli-Turkish crisis.

B. Israeli-Turkish relations

1. The 2011 reconciliation attempt

Every discussion of the possibility of restoring the Israel-Turkey relationship goes back to the summer of 2011. At that time a tangible opportunity to restore the relationship was missed. According to a Turkish journalist, on June 16, 2011 a draft reconciliation agreement between Israel and Turkey was signed by Joseph Ciechanover and Özdem Sanberk, the representatives of the two countries to the UN investigation panel (the Palmer committee). The agreement was reportedly reached after eight months of negotiations and according to a Turkish source was initially supported by the Israeli Prime Minister's representative to the negotiations, Minister Moshe Yaalon, who later opposed it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose not to adopt the agreement that was reached.

Erdoğan's decision to appoint Sanberk, a veteran and senior diplomat who is not a member of Erdoğan's inner circle or party, as his representative to the Palmer committee, and Feridun Sinirlioğlu, a senior Foreign Ministry official and former Ambassador to Israel, as his representative to the secret negotiations with Israel, was evidence, according to our Turkish colleagues, of the Turkish Prime Minister's political will to resolve the crisis with Israel despite his anger over the flotilla event. Erdoğan chose not to appoint to those positions members of his party with hawkish positions towards Israel.

The US supported and encouraged the negotiations between the countries. It was aware of the contents of the process even though it was not involved in the actual wording of the agreement. The US expected Erdoğan to agree to something less than an apology and also expected Netanyahu to show flexibility towards the Turks. In any case, the US was not willing to pressure Israel publicly on the subject and refrained from supporting solution formulas to which Israel did not agree.

Since the failure of the reconciliation process of the summer of 2011, there has been a feeling in Turkey that the crisis in the relationship has assumed a personal dimension and become a crisis between the pair Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the one hand and the pair Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on the other. Turning the crisis personal makes it harder to solve but raised hopes in Turkey that a possible change in the composition of the Israeli government after the elections (if only in the office of foreign minister) could lead to a breakthrough.

2. The present situation

In relative parallel to the policy dialogue, signals were received in Turkey that ignited a public discussion on the chance to resolve the crisis with Israel: Netanyahu gave some positive statements about Turkey in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Erdoğan declared that a Jewish businessman had been sent to him as a mediator, and a public opinion survey by Mitvim indicated positive trends in the Israeli public. The public discussion in Turkey surrounded the following questions: Why did Israeli public opinion change in favor of restoring the relationship with Turkey? What are the chances to change Israel's policy towards the crisis? Will Israel apologize? Will it happen soon and under what conditions? And what implications can the upcoming elections in Israel have for relations with Turkey?

It is evident that any development in Israel-Turkey relations receives a high level of attention in Turkey and receives greater prominence in the Turkish press than in its Israeli counterpart. The media interest in the Mitvim survey and in the policy dialogue indicates a desire and willingness in Turkey to conduct a dialogue with Israeli policy actors and to try to better understand Israel's positions and intentions. However, the Turks are still skeptical of the possibility of an imminent restoration of the relationship under the present Israeli government.

The dimension of time was noted as central. Our colleagues expressed a sense of urgency. The longer the resolution of the crisis between the countries is delayed, the harder it will be to achieve. Sanberk wished to convey a clear message to the Israeli public and decision-makers, that the matter of time is critical. He said: "If there is no solution soon, the crisis might reach a point where it is irreversible. These things can harden like stones. We must not let time do that. If we are late, the differences between the countries will increase and overshadow common interests. We will not be able to overcome them anymore and they could lead to a further deterioration of the relationship, which would put an end to all initiatives to repair the relationship."

One increasing difficulty in resolving the crisis is its trickling down from the political level to the public level. The assumption in Turkey is that while the official relations between the countries can still be repaired, on the public level it would be much harder. One indication is the finding in the Mitvim survey that despite the large majority in Israel in favor of repairing the relationship, half of the public does not intend to visit Turkey even if a reconciliation agreement is reached. Support for mending the relations currently comes mainly from strategic motives.

There have not been any public opinion surveys in Turkey yet about repairing the relationship with Israel. Without data, our Turkish partners were divided over the level of support in the Turkish public for restoring the relations with Israel. However, there was agreement that there are rising anti-Israeli attitudes in Turkey originating mainly from religious circles, and that continuation of the crisis is leading growing circles to adopt such attitudes.

There is a clear need for a marketing effort to advocate resolution of the crisis and explain to the citizens of Turkey and Israel why it is important to restore the relationship and what are the possible ways to do so. However, our Turkish partners indicated that in light of the current Israeli foreign policy, even they are hard pressed to come up with arguments that would convince the Turkish public and create incentives to restore the relationship. They emphasize that among the political leadership in Turkey there is no political will right now to convince Turkish public opinion of the feasibility of repairing the relations with Israel. They think there will be no substantial acts of public diplomacy or gestures of friendship by Turkey until Israel voices its willingness to apologize.

3. The way to mend the relations

An Israeli apology, worded one way or another, is a condition for restoring the relationship between Israel and Turkey. Without an apology there will be no normalization of relations. It is an essential matter for the entire Turkish public and not only for the leadership or for Erdoğan supporters. The apology is also important as a symbolic act between friendly neighboring countries. The Turks do not understand why Israel will not apologize for killing the nine civilians. They believe every country should be able to apologize to its friends for such a thing.

As to the question of the form of the apology, we were told it is not necessary for Netanyahu to be the one who makes the apology. It can be President Peres. Peres is an official representative of Israel and its symbolic head. He is also an esteemed figure in Turkey and the world and if he were the one to apologize, it is expected to be acceptable to the Turkish leadership. There were even talks about that possibility in the past.

A serious difficulty on the way to repairing the relationship is the question of the Israeli siege of Gaza. The assumption in Turkey is that ultimately Israel will apologize and agree to pay reparations to the victims of the flotilla events. The question is what about the third condition Erdoğan posed for restoring ties – lifting the siege. This condition was presented before but withdrawn during the negotiations over the draft agreement in 2011. Today the Turkish Prime Minister repeats it in his public comments on the question of relations with Israel.

Will Erdoğan drop that condition in case of an Israeli apology or will he continue to insist on it and prevent the restoration of ties even after Israel agrees to apologize? The uncertainty over the answer to this question is perceived in Turkey as one of the reasons Israel refuses to apologize. The assumption among our partners was that an apology is the key to restoring the relationship rather than lifting the siege of Gaza. An Israeli apology would give the Turkish leadership room for flexibility about the siege.

If there is an apology, the expectation in Turkey is that Erdoğan will find a way to back down on the matter of the siege and that the Turkish media will educate the public to the fact that the siege is no longer as critical a matter as it was. Turkey will be able to continue expressing its disapproval over Israel's policy towards Gaza but may at the same time explain that it is a matter the parties should resolve between themselves. There may also be use of a broader definition of lifting the siege – after all, a siege is a matter of interpretation and the interpretation can be manipulated according to political will. However, there is an understanding that this issue must be settled in advance, through a back channel or a mediator, so that Israel knows that an apology will indeed lead to the restoration of relations and not to a Turkish insistence on the additional condition of lifting the siege.

In any case, it was emphasized that an Israeli apology would be the beginning of restoring the relationship and not the end. An apology will not solve everything. The problems and differences between Israel and Turkey will continue, especially on the matter of Gaza and the Palestinians, and the countries will have to learn how to live with them. Turkey is accustomed to having such relationships, with countries such as Greece and Armenia. An Israeli apology and payment of reparations would trigger the immediate return of the Turkish ambassador to Israel. Israel and Turkey would be able to go back to talking to each other at the highest levels, including on military and strategic issues, and to trying to clarify their differences through the accepted diplomatic channels.

A significant warming of the relationship, however, will be possible only after there is progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Throughout history there has been a correlation between the nature of Israeli-Turkish relations and the status of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians. That is true to this day. It was argued at the meeting that progress on the peace process (even in a back channel) or a positive Israeli move on the Palestinian track would create a regional climate that would allow Turkey to make real progress in its relationship with Israel, beyond the normal-chilly relations expected between the countries after they reach a reconciliation agreement.

Highlights of the Turkish press coverage of the policy dialogue

CNN Turk, TV report (Turkish) including footage and interviews with Dr. Goren, Dr. Liel and Mr. Segal
AHaber News, 20-minute TV interview (dubbed into Turkish) with Dr. Goren and Ms. Rinawie-Zoabi
Hürriyet Daily News, Interview (English) with Dr. Goren, including a summary of the Mitvim survey findings about the Israel-Turkey relationship
Hürriyet Daily News, op-ed piece (English) by journalist Barçın Yinanç
Milliyet, op-ed piece (English version) by journalist Sami Kohen
Milliyet, op-ed piece (Turkish) by journalist Kadri Gürsel
GPoT Center, op-ed piece (English) by Sylvia Tiryaki, deputy director of GPoT Center
Star, op-ed piece (Turkish) by Mensur Akgün, director of GPoT Center
EuroNews, article (Turkish) by journalist Bora Bayraktar
EuroNews, op-ed piece (Turkish) by journalist Bora Bayraktar
 

 

icon-pdf

 

site by brandor