Last Sunday, the first public celebration of Hanukkah in the history of the Turkish Republic was staged in Ortaköy.
Within hours of the candle ceremony, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to Turkish-Israeli relations, suggesting that the gesture would not be restricted to just lending a new shine to Turkey’s image in terms of respect for minorities, but that they aimed to melt the ice between the two countries.
The response to Erdoğan, who posited that a rectification of the relations of ties between Turkey and Israel would benefit the entire region, was not long in coming. Israeli Foreign Affairs Director Dore Gold said Israel always supported stable ties with Turkey and that they were searching for the ways to achieve such aspirations.
The back-and-forth in messages, in the last couple of weeks, have increased hopes of normalization between Turkey and Israel. The proof, however, is in the pudding. While rejoicing at the second spring perhaps occasioned by this approach, it would be remiss to confuse desires with foresight.
First of all, Erdoğan reiterated the three conditions for the normalization of ties following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, namely, an Israeli apology, compensation for the victims and a lifting of the embargo on Gaza.
In 2013, mediation by U.S. President Barack Obama resulted in an apology. The two sides have also agreed on the financial amount of compensation but the file has been gathering dust for quite some time on the desk of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. In the end, though, the embargo issue continues to be the spanner in the works.
There are not a few people in Israel who worry that the continuation of the embargo will ultimately create security problems in Gaza and that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) could even benefit from the human suffering to find new jihadists. But there are also those in Israel who believe that the lifting of the embargo will create an even greater security problem. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect Israel to abandon mechanisms controlling the flow of weapons into Gaza at a time when violent terror incidents are continuing to spread from Jerusalem and Hamas is issuing calls for a third intifada.
As a matter of fact, some Turkish officials that have been personally involved in the Turkish-Israeli dialogue have said the lifting of the embargo would cause a massive reaction in Israel and that work is proceeding on piecemeal formulas. One, for example, could be to widen the fishing grounds for Gazan fishermen. As it is, the checks at the borders are far more relaxed than previously. Ultimately, the solution to the embargo issue involves not just Israel, but Egypt as well – and the poor state of Turkey’s relations with Egypt are plain for all to see.
It is also necessary to properly appreciate the regional factors that are pushing Turkey toward a rapprochement with Israel. When considering issues such as Iran’s rise, the fight against ISIL and energy cooperation, both nations would benefit from a normalization of ties. For Turkey, however, the current situation presents greater urgency.
While Israel has pursued a balanced line toward regional Arab countries, Turkey has conflicts with most of its neighbors. Most recently, of course, it became engaged in a spat with Russia. Apart from looking to compensate for the economic sanctions that will be imposed by Russia, Turkey’s approach toward Israel is also designed to counteract the solidifying triumvirate of Russia, Cyprus and Egypt in the Mediterranean.
The normalization of relations would reduce Turkey’s isolation in the region, and just as support from the lobbies would help smooth out some of the differences with the United States, better ties would provide a more legitimate framework for the oil trade among Turkey, the Iraqi Kurdish administration and Israel.
In the event that the political will to mend the countries’ ties continues, one would expect diplomatic ties to soon return to the ambassadorial level.
However, the provision of a sound foundation for relations depends on the realistic definition of mutual expectations. The reiteration of Turkey’s demand for the lifting of the embargo is unlikely to find a reception in Israel today.
On this front, the last word goes to Alon Liel, former Director general of the Foreign Ministry of Israel: “These rumors about a possible Turkish-Israeli detente have reached us here, too. As I do not foresee any change in the Israeli-Palestinian relations, it is difficult for me to believe that our relations with Turkey will be substantially improved. I think both countries should isolate the gas export component and deal with this issue first.”
“Turkey needs gas, and Israel needs to export it.”