Retreat from the brink?
Tel Aviv and Ankara have the opportunity to defuse tensions and establish dialogue after Netanyahu’s turbulent era.
In December 2008, Turkey negotiated talks between Syria and Israel which almost resulted in a peace treaty. During his visit to Turkey, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Turkish officials he would give them Israel’s final answer.
However, this historic opportunity was wasted because Tel Aviv launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza just five days after a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ankara felt betrayed by Israel’s aggression and the apparent fait accompli that disrespected Turkish officials involved in the negotiation process.
This decision became a turning point in the history of Turkish-Israeli relations, which had been on an upward trend since the 1990s. The two states had already enjoyed good relations since 1949, when Turkey became the first majority state. Muslim to recognize Israel. After the coup of 2008, Turkey faced a serious problem with Israel – namely that the latter sacrificed a long-standing dialogue with Ankara for a security-oriented foreign policy.
From the “low chair” crisis to the “Davos incident” of 2009, Turkey has always faced an Israel unwilling to engage in constructive dialogue. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has made a habit of showing its muscles instead of talking.
The 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos attacked an international aid flotilla to Gaza, killing eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish American, was viewed by the Turkish public and government. as the height of Israel’s disrespect for Turkey.
A decade later, the recent incident of a visiting Israeli couple in Turkey, held on suspicion of espionage and released after a week of arrest appears to be another turning point, but this time in a positive direction. After Mordi and Natalie Oknin reached their home in Israel, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called Turkish President Erdogan, thanking him for his efforts to free the couple. It was the first public conversation between Erdogan and an Israeli prime minister since 2013. Bennet praised the conversation as effective and thoughtful.
While Turkey has not asked for political favors in return for the release of the Oknin couple, Israel can use this opportunity to foster better dialogue with Turkey after a series of wasted opportunities in the past.
For their part, Turkish officials can finally establish a dialogue with their Israeli counterparts without encountering Israel’s refusal to cooperate in securing issues related to the Palestinians. Unlike Netanyahu, a master of the art of fueling the fire and capitalizing on crises with Turkey, Bennett and his team preferred to take advantage of Oknin’s episode to establish “normal” relations. .
Netanyahu liked to play the role of savior and profit from the plight of prisoners. This was the case with Naama Issachar, an Israeli citizen jailed in Russia for drug trafficking in 2019 and Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier released from Gaza in 2011.
Bennett and his team took a diametrically opposed path in the Oknin case: to focus on the solution rather than seeking political leverage and ramping up efforts rather than slowing the pace.
When it comes to Turkish-Israeli relations, the worst aspect of the Netanyahu era was its overwhelming dominance over the Israeli decision-making machinery. In doing so, he left no room for further high-level discussion. With the exception of Turkey’s representative to the UN Feridun Sinirlioglu, all official talks between Turks and Israelis since 2010 have taken place at a subordinate level, which was not enough to maintain a concrete dialogue between the two states. .
The Israeli ruling elite must also take into account the gulf between them and Israeli society. A considerable percentage of the Israeli population believe Israel should develop relations with Turkey, as Mitvim Institute surveys since 2015 have indicated. Another survey showed Turkey to be one of the travel destinations. most popular for Israelis. These polls reveal the disconnect between the disparaging discourse of the government and the media and the realities on the ground.
Nevertheless, Israel can close this gap by increasing its positive initiatives and gestures of goodwill towards Turkey. After Netanyahu’s stormy era, this is a simple but effective approach. Ankara has already shown goodwill at the highest level, with Erdogan calling his Israeli counterpart Herzog in July to congratulate him on his inauguration. The recent call between Erdogan and Bennett also signaled that Turkey is open to dialogue and diplomacy with Israel, even though Bennett is known for his hawkish rhetoric.
Of course, major political differences between the two states remain. No expert considers the current trajectory of relations returning to the levels of security cooperation reached during the 1990s. Any form of exaggerated optimism would soon be confronted with reality with the deterioration of the situation in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
On the other hand, Israel should not seek dialogue with Turkey only when crises arise. Unlike inflammatory appeals in Israeli or pro-Israel media networks Calling to “boycott travel to Turkey,” Israeli leaders should avoid repeating Netanyahu’s theatricality. They should seek long-term openings, as normal relations with Turkey can offer more dividends for peace and stability in the region.
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Source: TRT World