Turkey-Israel Relations: From Oslo to Flotilla

BY KADRI KAAN RENDA | 07.09.2011

Turkey is one of the states who recognized Israel shortly after its proclamation of independence in 1949. Up until the early 1990s Turkey-Israel relations were not based on solid grounds and Turkey kept her interaction with Israel limited throughout the Cold War With the inception of the Oslo Peace Process, Turkey and Israel became close allies who interacted at every possible level ranging from military to tourism and to higher education. However, the heydays of the 1990s in Turkey-Israel relations have long been gone. The recent collapse of relations hints at the beginning of a new era in relations.

erdogan_netanyahuThe UN report on the Flotilla Incident of May 2010 fell short of Turkish expectations from the international community. The Turkish government deemed the report unacceptable and therefore null and void. As an initial reaction to Israel, Turkey has downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel and has suspended all the military agreements. Subsequent measures against Israel’s blockade of Gaza, such as taking the issue to the International Court of Justice will apparently be implemented by Turkey, as Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a press conference after the report was leaked.

In order to do justice to the UN report and to understand the recent tension between Israel and Turkey, we first need to examine the findings of the report. Let’s look at the unfavourable and arguably biased statements in the report. In the summary section, three points that contradict with the Turkish stance on the Flotilla raid as well as Turkey’s views on the Gaza Blockade are made by the panel of inquiry. First of all, as opposed to the Turkish view on the Gaza blockade, the report finds it legitimate and legal. Secondly, the report criticizes the Turkish government of failing to “dissuade them [the organizers of the flotilla] from their actions”. Lastly, even though flotilla was a civilian vessel performing a humanitarian mission the report questions the true intentions of the organizers, explicitly mentioning the leading organizer of the flotilla, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). On the other hand, the report makes two points that could have been considered aligned with the Turkish approach. The first point is on Israel’s dismissing of non-violent options out of hand and its disproportionate and unnecessary use of force. The report underlines that the Israeli raid on a civilian vessel in international waters was “excessive and unreasonable”. This statement seems partially in accordance with the Turkish view that Israel overreacted and had no reason to attack a civilian vessel in international waters. More importantly, Israeli authorities have raised no objection to this statement as if they drew their lessons from the incident. However, the devil is in the details, of course. For Turkey, the Gaza blockade is illegal and therefore, Israel has no right to capture a civilian vessel, whereas the report considers Israeli blockade legitimate and hence, providing that Israel complies with the international law, she has the right to stop and search any neutral ships that is suspected of breaching the blockade. Lastly, the report also criticizes the methods of Israeli forces and condemns the mistreatment of captured passengers by Israeli authorities.

Without a doubt the fact is that civilians were killed by Israeli forces. And this is reprehensible and unacceptable by Turkey, whose citizens were killed by a presumably friendly country. Nevertheless, the Flotilla incident cannot be comprehended without a backdrop of preceding series of events. The Turkish government has been at odds with the Israeli government over the ways of dealing with Hamas as well as the Iran’s nuclear programme. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ‘one minute’ outrage at Davos in 2009 epitomizes Turkey’s vehement opposition to Israel’s heavy-handed approach which culminated in Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip and its blockade of Gaza. In retrospect, AKP’s dialogue with Hamas leaders and the Davos incident seem to be the harbingers of the current breakdown in relations. However, what makes the current tension more alarming than any previous ones is that these political skirmishes between Israeli and Turkish politicians have turned into a tug-of-war in Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, the recent confrontation between two states might have dire consequences for both countries. Those consequences will also have a deeper far-reaching impact in Eastern Mediterranean. At the moment both sides seem having irreconcilable opinions about the blockade of Gaza, the Palestine issue and security and order in the Middle East. Israel is not buying Davutoglu’s ideas about creating a collective and cooperative security environment in the Middle East, which will lead to mutual development and prosperity in the region. Israeli authorities maintain their security-first approach and criticize the Turkish government of pursuing a Neo-Ottomanist foreign policy agenda in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Turkey’s recent reaction to Israel demonstrated her determination to make Israel a law-abiding state in the Middle East. Turkish officials assertively underline in their statements that Turkey is poised to take any measures to stop Israel’s bully-style tactics in Eastern Mediterranean.

Needless to say, because of the Flotilla incident Turkey-Israel relations have been shaken to its core. The rift between two ex-partners cannot be mended easily in a short period of time. Some commonsensical people on both sides will try in vain to reset the relationship, but for the near future those efforts will go unheeded and bring no good any time soon. The governments on both sides are laden with emotions and biased opinions about each other. Turkey under the AKP rule has taken a hard line on Israeli policies in Palestine and they do not want to be seen as meek and mild when dealing with Israel. In my opinion the problem lies in the way the Turkish government handles its relations with Israel, rather than its harsh yet valid criticism. The AKP government has been a very vocal critic of Israeli single-handed policies in Gaza and its intransigent position in the Middle East Peace Process. This is the primary reason why some Israelis think they’re victimized by the so-called Neo-Ottomanist policies of the Turkish government. For Israel, the Turkish government under the AKP rule is crafting itself a regional leadership role by capitalizing on the public sentiment about the Palestine issue at the expense of relations with Israel. In essence, the reaction of Turkey is appropriate and reasonable. As a sovereign state Turkey has every right to defend the rights of her citizens and protect them by all means. However, Turkey should have dealt with Israel in a more discreet and tactful manner as they supposedly do with Iran. Otherwise, Turkey, as Israeli authorities like to picture on every occasion, would be perceived as an over-confident state that is drifting away from the West and acting like a regional leader whose sole aim is to impose its own imperialist vision on other regional states.

In the near future, the worst case scenario would be the military showdown and confrontation between two states. I think it will be a grave mistake for Israel if she confronts the Turkish navy escorting civilian vessels in international waters. On the other hand, Turkey will certainly work hard to persuade the international community about the illegitimate nature of the blockade and will put every possible pressure on Israel to lift the blockade. However, Turkish politicians would be wise to refrain from breaching the blockade by another Flotilla incident. Rather than attempting to break the blockade Turkish diplomacy should devote its efforts to initially ease the blockade and eventually to remove it with help of the international community.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN
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