Turkey: Ankara and Israel Bury the Hatchet (with American Help)
Despite the recent bleak assessments made by certain analysts, Turkey and Israel -- with intense American help -- have managed to pull off an early spring surprise and set in motion a process to restore their currently frayed relations and end a three-year drama that ultimately served nobody's interests.
Earlier today, towards the end of American President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his Turkish counterpart and issued an apology for the deaths that took place due to "operational mistakes" when Israeli forces raid the Turkish Mavi Marmara Gaza aid ship some three years ago. In joint statements released by the two prime ministers' offices, the two countries said they are working out on an agreement for compensation/non-liability and will work together on improving the humanitarian situation in the "Palestinian territories." With this formula, it would appear that Israel has satisfied Turkey's demands for normalizing their relations.
The bleak assessments about the possibility of the two bickering countries patching things up were warranted. Up until today, neither side had shown much of willingness to back down from the position they had backed themselves into regarding how to resolve the Mavi Marmara issue. Meanwhile, Erdogan had continued his habit of regularly bashing Israel, most recently calling Zionism a "crime against humanity" at a conference in Vienna last month. (In hindsight, it's clear something was being cooked up when Erdogan "clarified" his Zionism comment in a recent interview with a Danish newspaper, saying he was only criticizing Israeli policy against the Palestinians and supported Israel's right to exist alongside a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. According to US officials, this clarification was instrumental in allowing Netanyahu to make his call to the Turkish PM.)
At the end of the day, though, current events in the Middle East proved to be too volatile for both countries to be able to afford to maintain their grudge against each other. In many ways, what brought Turkey and Israel back together this time is what brought them first together when they established their strategic partnership in the late 1990's: fears of regional instability and threats stemming from Syria. Obviously the countries will not go back to the kind of relationship they had previously, but, at the same time, they are returning to something familiar, a relationship based on security concerns and likely with intelligence sharing as one of its cornerstones. (Ha'aretz's Barak Ravid has a very good article, here, about the behind-the-scenes work that went into reconciling Ankara and Jerusalem and about the strategic concerns that brought them back together.) The fact that Washington was so instrumental in brokering the Turkish-Israeli detente is also an indication that in these turbulent times, both countries are looking to the United States again as a crucial partner, particularly with regards to security matters, but also as important element in helping maintain and animate ties between. Again, this is not unlike the dynamic that drove Turkey-Israel relations in the late 1990's.
After three years of frozen ties and mutual recrimination, both Turkey and Israel have a lot of work to do to rebuild their ties. The first step, obviously, will be for ambassadors to return to both countries, but the real heavy lifting will have to take place in the public sphere. After years of hearing Erdogan lambast their country on a regular basis, Israelis are rightfully suspicious of the Turkish PM and his intentions. The Turkish public, on the other hand, after years of hearing their leader blast Israel, will have to be convinced that all can be forgiven between their country and Israel and that all the legal actions Ankara had initiated against Israel regarding the Mavi Marmara case should now be stopped. Erdogan, meanwhile, must pull off the difficult task of maintaining the image he has cultivated in the Middle East over the last several years as a leader who is willing to take on Israeli policy and as a champion of the Palestinian cause while at the same time taking concrete steps to make Israel believe that he's a reliable partner.
That brings up the thorniest question in all of this. What drove Turkey and Israel apart in the first place was Ankara's disapproval of Israel's Palestinian policy, from the continuing blockade of Gaza to the ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank. Considering the Israeli government is still led by Netanyahu, whose policies Ankara has so vociferously objected to in the past, how will the countries find a way to work around the Palestinian issue again leading to a rupture in their relations? Unless Obama has helped orchestrate another miracle breakthrough during his trip to Israel -- this one between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- the Palestinian issue, particularly the situation in Gaza, will continue to dog and endanger Turkey-Israel relations.