Turkey Turns Back Toward Israel

Four Years after the bloody Israeli attack on Turkish protestors aboard a ship bound for Gaza, Ankara is hoping reestablish war relations and end its increasing isolation.

05.13.14 5:00 PM ET

ISTANBUL, Turkey — As it faces increasing isolation in the Middle East, Turkey is pressing to conclude an agreement with Israel to end four years of diplomatic hostilities within days or weeks. 

Analysts say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking a way out after his strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood created problems for Turkey’s relations with Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ties between Turkey and Israel, two key US allies in the region, have been in crisis since Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists onboard a ship bound for the Gaza Strip in May 2010. Ankara kicked out the Israeli ambassador in response. But now Erdogan and his aides say a deal with Israel is close. 

Under pressure from President Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan last year, and the Turkish prime minister says there is an emerging consensus on two other conditions he has set for a normalization of relations. 

Erdogan demands compensation payments for the victims of the Israeli raid on the ship, the Mavi Marmara, as well as a move by Israel to loosen the embargo of the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Israel’s arch-foe Hamas. The pro-government press in Turkey has reported that Israel is willing to pay around $20 million in compensation and to give access to Turkish humanitarian aid for Gaza. In return, Erdogan is said to have agreed to end a trial in absentia now underway in Istanbul against high-ranking Israeli commanders involved in the Mavi Marmara raid.

“Turkey has been having problems in the international arena,” says Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, a think tank in Ankara. “And Israel is stuck with a Middle East peace process that is not moving forward.” So there’s a mutual interest in lowering tensions and “there are signals from both sides,” Orhan tells The Daily Beast.

“We have come to an agreement with respect to compensation,” Erdogan announced during an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS late last month. “And with respect to sending humanitarian aid to the people in Palestine through Turkey, [that] is the other step of the negotiations, and with the completion of that phase, we can move towards a process of normalization,” the prime minister added.

“I have already spoken with my colleagues at the Foreign Ministry,” said Erdogan. “I think we’re talking about days, weeks in this respect.” But he cautioned that last-minute snags could still derail an agreement. “I just hope there won’t be another black cat, which would change things,” he said. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has confirmed that talks with Turkey are in a critical phase. “There’s every reason to believe that relations between Israel and Turkey will be normalized,” Lieberman declared in the Israeli daily Haaretz. “We believe that in the near future the situation will return to its normal course and our relations will improve.” 

Erdogan’s determination to reach a deal with Israel comes as Turkey’s effort to embrace and perhaps even to guide the Arab world appears to have collapsed. Erdogan has been at loggerheads with Iraq’s Shia-dominated central government and his extensive support for the Syrian opposition fighting to end the rule of President Bashar Assad has not kept it from faltering badly.

Meanwhle, says Mehmet Sahin, a political scientist at Ankara’s Gazi University and deputy director of the Ankara-based Institute of Strategic Thinking, Turkey has come under pressure by “authoritarian governments” in the region for its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Egypt, the Erdogan government gave strong backing to the Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi, angering Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey refused to work with the new rulers in Cairo after Morsi was toppled last year, and Egypt sent home the Turkish ambassador to Cairo in November. Turkey responded by expelling the Egyptian envoy. 

Erdogan advisor Ibrahim Kalin, trying to put the best face on the facts, has described Turkey’s loneliness as a “meritorious isolation” because Ankara’s approach was based on democratic values. But the series of crises in its neighborhood has completely nullified Turkey’s lofty aim of “zero problems” with other countries.

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A deal with Israel would present a new opportunity for Ankara and for the prime minister personally. Presidential elections are approaching later this year, and Erdogan is expected to run. If the talks produce an agreement to send humanitarian aid to Gaza, which has been under a strict Israeli embargo since 2007 and suffering shortages of everything from food and water to construction material, “the reputation of Turkey and Erdogan in the Islamic world will go through the roof,” Sahin tells The Daily Beast. Opening up Gaza was the original purpose of the Mavi Marmara’s voyage. So lifting the Gaza embargo “is the key,” says Sahin.

Economic ties between the two countries, which enjoyed a close partnership in the 1990s, have already recovered from the Mavi Marmara crisis. Turkish exports to Israel rose seven per cent to reach $1.17 billion in the first six months of 2013, while Israel’s exports to Turkey shot up by 53 per cent to $1.16 billion according to Turkey’s Ministry for the Economy.

Erdogan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said this week he hoped for an agreement very soon. “Such a development will also be beneficial for the Middle East peace process,” Davutoglu said. “We hope that the Israeli side will display a positive stance in the coming days.” In Israel, the Jerusalem Post newspaper reported that the deal with Turkey would be finalized after Netanyahu’s return from a current visit to Japan this Friday.