Rapprochement with Israel unlikely

Turkey’s straight-shooter Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could not resist throwing another punch at Israel this week while on the way home from visiting Germany. He reiterated three Turkish demands for the price of normalizing ties with the former ally with a new twist. If my memory serves me correctly, for the first time he publicly ruled out any compromise deal based only on a formal apology and compensation for the killing of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American on a humanitarian aid ship en route to Gaza.

When pressed by German Chancellor Angele Merkel in a closed-door meeting on the possibility of mending fences with Israel, Erdoğan said unless Israel lifts the blockade on Gaza, he is not interested in any deal that might offer an apology and compensation to Turkey. Later on, when he shared his recollection of the meeting with reporters, Erdoğan said: “I told her that all three conditions must be fulfilled. I said to her in very clear terms that we are not open to options like agreeing to a deal on an apology and compensation while discarding the lifting of embargo condition.”

Merkel’s intervention on behalf of Israel is not the only one. The issue has been brought up by a long list of other leaders during their meetings with Erdoğan in the past. It included Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and many other European leaders. Erdoğan did not budge an inch. When you set the policy at the highest level of government with these sharp edges, then there is not much room to maneuver diplomatically. The working relationship currently conducted at the undersecretary level between the two countries’ foreign ministries does not mean much.

It is no secret that Erdoğan feels passionately about Hamas-controlled Gaza. He invited Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, shunned by Israel, the US and Western countries as a terrorist organization, to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) convention held in September. When he hailed Mashaal from the podium, the crowd of some 40,000 party loyalists in Ankara’s large sports hall cheered for him quite enthusiastically, some in a standing ovation. The Hamas leader stood up and greeted party delegates. Over the course of time Erdoğan and Mashaal have developed a personal friendship — so much so that both had a private fast-breaking dinner at the Turkish prime minister’s residence in July 2012 during the holy month of Ramadan in an unannounced visit.

When talking to reporters on the plane on Wednesday, Erdoğan did not hide his admiration of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, who visited Gaza, in the first visit by a head of state since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in 2007. “I wanted to call him up and congratulate him for that. I too want to pay a visit to Gaza soon provided that there is a mutual agreement on that with the Gaza administration. I have plans to that effect. We are talking about this with Mahmoud Abbas as well,” Erdoğan explained.

This is not the first time that Erdoğan has revealed his wish to visit Gaza. When he visited Cairo in September 2011 as part of a region-wide tour that included Tunisia and Libya as well, he wanted to be the first head of government to visit Hamas-controlled Gaza. But concerns that were raised by both the Egyptian government at the time as well as by Palestinian leader Abbas, not to mention security challenges, forced Erdoğan to drop plans to visit Gaza. He visited, however, the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2005 as part of a tour to Israel and Palestine when Ankara was enjoying cordial ties with the Jewish state. Recalling that visit, the Turkish prime minister explained to reporters that he personally witnessed the agony and suffering of Palestinians. “We do not accept the fact that people in Palestine are being held in an open prison,” Erdoğan noted.

Erdoğan’s insistence on the third condition of lifting the embargo on Gaza in return for rapprochement further complicates efforts to repair the rupture between Turkey and Israel. Will the easing of sanctions considerably by Israel satisfy this condition? To what extent should Israel need to bend over and let go of security concerns to fulfill the Turkish criteria? Is there room to negotiate on the scope and extent of the embargo? Will Turkey insist on a complete lifting of the embargo and naval blockade? These and frankly many other items are open question, and I suspect very few knew the Turkish position on them.

If one thing is clear from the prime minister’s remarks, a simple apology and compensation will not heal the rift between the two countries. The suggestion that the third condition was added by the Turkish government simply to raise the stakes for Israel in a bid to force Tel Aviv to compromise on the other two is no longer a valid argument. For all intents and purposes, Erdoğan enjoys using Israel as punching bag to boost his popularity on the Arab street and to energize core party loyalists and activists. He will not give up on the bashing of Israel as long as all three conditions remain unfulfilled by the Jewish state.

Coupled with that, the trial of Israeli military commanders over a raid on a Turkish ship, set to start on Oct. 6, will certainly widen the rift between the two countries. While the trial serves as an opportunity for the 490 people listed in the indictment as direct and indirect victims of the raid to voice their grievances, it will negatively impact the perception of Israel in Turkish public opinion. As tales of horrific encounters in a deadly assault on a Turkish ship make it into headlines in Turkey, the position of the government against Israel will be further hardened under the spotlight. Turkish activists are planning to bring more complaints in courts of law in almost all provinces of Turkey to keep the issue on the national agenda.

Under these circumstances, it must be understandable that Israel is trying to negotiate a package deal with Turkey rather than just offering an apology and compensation. The Israeli government is worried that even if it offers these two of Turkey’s conditions, nothing will change, as they claim there is a long list of demands voiced by Turkey. Israel wants to discuss Iran, Hamas, Gaza, legal cases and many other issues with Turkey so that it knows where Turkey stands vis-à-vis Israel on these issues. The Jewish state wants to make sure that the setting for “the day after” is markedly different than the bleak one it is now facing with regard to relations with Turkey.

Of course, last but not least is lingering concern for the post-Bashar al-Assad era in Syria, neighbors to both countries. It has been argued that both countries have a vested interest in keeping Syria in check for their own national interests. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has its own plans for the future regime of Syria, markedly different than the one envisioned in Israel. But there are also shared fears on the dangers the current regime may pose to the region. Both countries are very much worried over the prospect of chemical and biological stockpiles in the hands of the regime, which may eventually use them as a last resort. Both Turkey and Israel, along with other Western allies, are in need of close coordination to track down and, if necessary, to destroy these stockpiles so that they do not pose any real danger to the region.

Erdoğan expressed that fear this week when he said that Assad might resort to these weapons when push comes to shove. “But it is not possible for humanity to allow that,” he vowed, detailing his exchange on this very sensitive issue with Merkel in the Germany visit. It is kind of ironic, but Erdoğan would be adding nuclear woes today with respect to Syria if Israel had not destroyed a nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor in 2007. In fact, Israel did a favor to Turkey by taking out this military installation with possible nuclear capabilities. I’m sure Ankara would not mind Israeli warplanes taking part in a joint effort in neutralizing chemical and biological weapons in Syria in the future.

But judging from Erdoğan’s posture against Israel in the wake of the flotilla incident and his personal affection for Hamas, expecting any rapprochement between the two governments any time soon would be nothing but mere wishful thinking for the reasons cited earlier.

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