John Kerry’s unexpected trip to Turkey and Israel, which began when the U.S. secretary of State touched down in Istanbul on Saturday, signals a new optimism that the broken relationship between two critical American allies is finally on the mend.
Analysts say Kerry’s trip could put the final touches on a big U.S. diplomatic push for reconciliation between the two countries. America sees cooperation between the regional heavyweights as crucial to its attempt to contain the tumult set off by the Arab Spring—including the civil war raging in Syria and the lingering political instability in Egypt and elsewhere, on top of the looming threat of a nuclear Iran.
The rapprochement could also indicate that Israel and Turkey need one another far more than their famously strong-willed leaders might like to admit.
Relations between the two countries, once strong allies, have been in tatters since May 2010, when Israeli troops raided a flotilla of ships carrying aid from Turkey to Gaza. The raid killed nine Turkish citizens and prompted the Turkish government to expel its Israeli ambassador and recall its own from Israel. The countries’ two powerful militaries, once close partners, began to regard each other as hostile forces, and lucrative trade dried up. Even the number of Israeli tourists to Turkey, who once flocked there, dwindled amid fears that the country was no longer safe for travel.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, failed to ease the tensions, increasing them instead with a bitter war of words. As recently as late February, on the eve of Kerry’s last Turkey visit, Erdogan made international headlines when he referred to Zionism as “a crime against humanity.”
The two leaders “are both stubborn in their own ways,” says Yossi Mekelberg, a Middle East scholar at Chatham House in London. “Instead of dealing with things quietly and behind the scenes, these are politicians who like to hear their own voices and make great statements. And that’s escalated the situation over the last few years.”
Yet Mekelberg says there are pressing issues that seem to have convinced the two sides to drop their guard—namely, the crisis in Syria, and the fact that the continued spat has hurt each country’s regional concerns. “It’s important for them to work with one another, as opposed to against one another,” Mekelberg says.
The final push for reconciliation came from America. At the end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel last month, just before his departure flight, he accompanied Netanyahu to a trailer on the tarmac, where the Israeli leader placed a call to Erdogan. On the call, Netanyahu officially apologized for Israel’s handling of the flotilla raid, and the two discussed plans to resolve the incident, including compensation for victims. An accord now looks to be on the horizon. “The American brokering was quite helpful in the end,” says a Turkish diplomatic official who declined to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity. “The last 100 meters, we ran with them.”
In Israel, Netanyahu’s apology has been met with some criticism, particularly on the right. Avigdor Lieberman, who stepped down as foreign minister last year but held the post at the time of the raid, called the apology a “serious mistake” that “harms the dignity and status of Israel in the region and in the world.”
But David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that one issue in particular made it imperative for Israel to make amends—“in a word: Syria.”
Both countries fear spillover from the civil war there, and are particularly concerned with the fate of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. In addition, Pollock notes, Israel is wary of the growing threat of Islamic extremism among the rebels—and concerned about who might control the country if President Bashar al-Assad is deposed. Turkey has been one of the rebellion’s main backers and could help shield Israel down the line. “Whatever else happens in Syria, however long it takes, and whoever wins, Turkey can use its influence with the Syrian opposition to discourage them from provoking Israel, or from allowing the jihadis within their ranks to provoke Israel,” Pollock says. “It’s important for both countries that they not get in each other’s way on Syria, and maybe even find a way to coordinate.”
Mekelberg, of Chatham House, adds that the wider upheaval across the Middle East may likewise have Israel feeling that it could use Turkey’s help. “The world around Israel is changing,” he says. “And the only source of stability around right now is Turkey.”
Netanyahu’s apology was largely viewed as a victory in Turkey. Billboards in Ankara praised Erdogan, and many in the Turkish press painted the apology as an affirmation of the country’s growing regional clout. “Israel is quite concerned with what’s going on in the region, with the whole Arab awakening ... They are not able to understand the dynamics,” the Turkish diplomatic source says. “They also believe that Turkey is a key actor in the region now, and because of that I think they want to have a normal channel of communication with Turkey, to help their understanding.”
Turkey, however, has also seen its regional ambitions disrupted by the Arab Spring. A policy of non-intervention in its neighbors’ internal affairs—hoping to win influence by way of soft power—was upended by Syria’s conflict. And the continuation of the bloody civil war, in spite of Turkish support for the rebels, has chastened Erdogan abroad while politically weakening him at home.
Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program, says that Turkey’s falling out with Israel also hurt its regional clout. Once a key arbiter between Israel and Palestine, Turkey was left out of the loop during last November’s Gaza conflict, with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi brokering the eventual cease-fire. (“Turkey Finds It Is Sidelined as Broker in Mideast,” read one headline in The New York Times.)
“Since coming to power in 2002, [Erdogan’s government] has followed a foreign-policy strategy designed to make Ankara a Middle East actor,” Cagaptay says, adding that Turkey has done everything from mediating in regional conflicts to pushing Turkish TV shows onto Middle Eastern networks and its products into Middle Eastern supermarkets. “Still, Ankara’s ambition to become a regional soft power will come to full fruition only if Erdogan can pick up the phone and call all regional actors, including the Israeli prime minister.”
Toward that end, Cagaptay says, Turkey may also be eyeing the Israel-Palestine peace process—something Kerry is pushing to restart, and which is expected to feature heavily in his current trip. Cagaptay says that Ankara might try to use its influence over Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, to push it to renounce violence and position it as a possible partner for peace talks. While analysts paint this as unlikely, Cagaptay says that Turkey would see a boost to its stature simply by being involved. “Even if Turkish efforts do not succeed, they would still be lauded, casting Ankara as a key Middle East actor seeking to bring peace,” he says.