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Turkey: Will Erdogan Sink Reconciliation Process with Israel?

These days, the words related to Middle East diplomacy that probably inspire the least amount of confidence are "Israel and Turkey near repairing alliance" (as the Wall Street Journal suggested the other day).

Since a Washington-brokered breakthrough last March, which led to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling his Turkish counterpart to apologize for the deaths caused during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, there has been little movement in terms of actual reconciliation. Although there have been various reports over the last year that the two sides are close to patching things up, with only the matter of how much Israel will pay in compensation to the Mavi Marmara victims' families left to be resolved, these have all proven to be erroneous.

But the latest suggestion that the former allies may indeed be close to restoring ties was different, considering that it came from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu himself. “There has recently been a momentum and new approach in compensation talks. We could say that most of the differences have been removed recently in these discussions,” Davutoglu said in a Feb. 9 television interview.

It didn't take long, though, for things to return to the status quo, with Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepping in to undercut Davutoglu's optimism. Speaking at a press conference in Ankara a few days later, Erdogan reiterated his essentially deal-breaking position that no renewal of ties was possible without Israel lifting its economic blockade of the Gaza Strip. “Without the end of the embargo [on the Gaza Strip], there will be no protocol. The embargo needs to be lifted and this should be stated in a written protocol,” Erdogan told reporters this past Tuesday.

Once Erdogan made his comment, Turkey and Israel went from on the verge of a breakthrough to once again stuck in the previous cycle of mutual blame. The failure to reach an agreement is "Erdogan's fault," Yuval Steinitz, Israel's Strategic Affairs Minister, said.

At the same time, perhaps it's not only Erdogan who's keeping the reconciliation process from moving ahead. According to a report on Israel's Ynetnews site, Netanyahu might be holding up approving the framework that Turkish and Israeli negotiators have come up with, worried that the compensation agreement might anger his right wing.

While it remains to be seen if Ynet's report is true, it's clear that Israel isn't feeling the kind of urgency to restore ties with Turkey it felt a year ago, when Netanyahu made the first move to resolve the diplomatic crisis with Ankara by issuing his apology. Compared to a year ago (and even more so when looking back to the time of the Mavi Marmara), Ankara's position and Erdogan's stature in the region are much diminished, while its image in Washington has also taken a hit, especially after Turkey in recent months floated the possibility of buying a Chinese-made missile defense system and Erdogan hinted that the US ambassador might be behind the large corruption investigation that has rocked the PM's government.

A few years back, Israel was being told about the necessity of restoring relations with the Middle East's rising star. Today, with Turkey facing serious domestic strife and its once ambitious foreign policy mostly discredited, Netanyahu may see less value in taking the risks necessary to restore ties with Ankara. The strategic value of rebuilding the relationship with Turkey is still there, particularly with regards to the issue of how to best export the natural gas being extracted in the eastern Mediterranean, but there's clearly no rush. If anything, Netanyahu may be happy Erdogan has again torpedoed any possible deal by again bringing the question of the Gaza blockade back into the picture.

Turkey: Will Erdogan Sink Reconciliation Process with Israel?

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