Saying Sorry

05.21.13

Was It Irresponsible of Israel to Apologize to Turkey?

Critics from the left often accuse Israel of acting irresponsibly, and isolating itself by ignoring the consequences of its actions. This state of affairs tends to be hailed by the right as a sign Israel is acting responsibly—by simply doing what it must to survive—while others seek to isolate it. The case of the Israeli apology to Turkey over the deaths on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 has turned things around. Now, when Israel is acting responsibly by trying to engage with others, rightists are unhappy because they see the apology and mending fencing with Turkey as irresponsible.

But Turkish-Israeli relations, long frayed, are on the mend on the basis of the apology (made possible by the removal of Avigdor Lieberman from the cabinet). And contrary to what many naysayers have insisted, Israel benefits considerably from warmer relations. Their arguments tend to be that Israel didn’t do anything wrong, that it shouldn’t apologize for the deaths of individuals affiliated with terrorist organizations, and that Turkey doesn’t like Israel anyway and so the apology will serve to humiliate Israel without any concrete benefits.

It’s true that the details of the apology’s components are still being worked out (particularly Israeli compensation), and lingering resentment and tension remain fuelled by Ankara’s continuing relationship with Hamas and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But those who predict doom for Israel on the basis of its apology tend to ignore the social nature of international politics, and forget that relations between states don’t turn on the demands for instant results made by pundits and commentators. Responsible states benefit from acting responsibly because, as they demonstrate constructive behavior over time, other states will come to trust them more, be more willing to work out differences with them, and work more easily with them on issues of common interest.

In truth, it was never a complete severing as might have been assumed. Political relations were frosty if not frozen, and there was a drop in bilateral arms deals. But trade continued and even increased. At the same time, Ankara’s efforts to build a network of economic and political relations with regional Arab states ended as the Arab Awakening swept aside the assumptions on which that policy (often referred to as the “zero problems” approach but encompassing much more) was based, and as Arab leaders demonstrated they are far more concerned with domestic threats to their position than Turkish favor.

The nature of the international system is such that states won’t—indeed, can’t—always agree, especially when they have different interests and different identities and self-proclaimed roles guiding their foreign policies. In elementary school, children will disagree and fight, then storm away in a huff and simply ignore each other. They can do this because they believe they operate in self-contained worlds unto themselves. But states can’t do this because they live in a world in which interacting with each other is the norm, unless you want to be North Korea or Iran.

Interaction with other states is also necessary because long-term interests are harmed without regular communication. In Israel’s case, the clash with Turkey has led to its being shut out of NATO programs, a loss of revenue from arms deals, and the removal of a potential interlocutor with the Palestinians, a friend in a period of uncertainty in the region, and an ally to contain the effects of the Syrian civil war with. All of this will be addressed by the improvement in relations with Turkey.

States can’t “go it alone” in the international system—not economically, and not politically. Israel needs friends and allies, and Turkey is a powerful country that can play an important role on the world stage, particularly once it gets its own house in order and constructs a stable foreign policy.

Several studies on apologies in international relations demonstrate the integral nature of them and the benefits that accrue to states that offer them. Israel’s defenders and supporters want it to be accepted in the international system. Acting within the norms by which most states operate—like apologizing for the deaths of other countries’ citizens when not in a war—can only help Israel and prove it’s a responsible, mature, “normal” state like any other.

The results might be less tangible than an immediate exchange of state visits or resumption of military cooperation, but they can be no less important when it comes to Israel’s need for support in international forums or on issues of critical concern to it—for example, one of the biggest concerns of rightwing supporters of Israel, Iran.