Mending in relations between the once-firm allies, raises the prospects of much needed cooperation on various areas but U.S. supervision will be key to move it forward
Following the announcement of the normalization agreement between Turkey and Israel, Turkish Heritage Organization (THO) hosted a timely panel discussion on Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at the Carnegie Endowment Conference Center. Moderated by Assistant Professor at SUNY Maritime College Dr. Mark Meirowitz, panel titled, “Changing Tides: The Road to Reconciliation and the Future of Turkish-Israeli Relations” brought together distinguished panelists Dr. Brenda Shaffer from the Atlantic Council, Dan Arbell from the Brookings Institute and Moran Stern from Georgetown University Center for Jewish Civilization.
In his opening remarks, THO Executive Vice President Ali Cinar indicated that THO welcomed the agreement for a new beginning between critical U.S. Allies Turkey and Israel. According to Cinar, restoration of full diplomatic and economic ties is not only a clear signal of new balance of power in the Middle East but also a much needed positive development in a region where positive developments are rare. Cinar concluded that as an organization that focuses on U.S. – Turkey relations, this encouraging development will have a positive effect on U.S. – Turkish relations.
Leaders Failed to Promote the Deal
Mr. Stern, a Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, first described the details and likely effects of the normalization agreement between Turkey and Israel, which was announced two days before THO’s panel on June 26th. According to Stern, the deal was a bargain for Israel, with the Administration paying only $20 million to compensate for “lousy military operations.” but leaders failed to promote it. Stern also indicated that in addition to mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation, the deal has improved Israel’s prospects for strong relations with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries—relationships which could shift the regional balance of power against Iran.
Georgetown University scholar argued that reducing the dependence of Palestinians on Israel, furthermore, is a positive development and Turkey’s limited support for Hamas has little real impact on Israeli national security for the time being. On the other hand, Professor Stern warned that this relationship and Turkish-built infrastructure, which will be used by Hamas, might become problematic if another round of fighting breaks out between Hamas and Israel.
Mavi Marmara Was not the Beginning of the Crisis
Professor Shaffer of the Atlantic Council shared Mr. Stern’s view that the deal was a positive development for both countries, but added that it was likely an inevitable course. According to Professor Shaffer, the increasing tensions between Israel and Turkey before the Gaza Flotilla incident were not based on fundamentally conflicting material interests that define most border disputes, but on ideological differences and relationships with third-party actors. Contrary to what most people think, Professor Shaffer indicated that the crisis between Israel and Turkey was never as deep as it really appeared. Unlike what took place between Russia and Turkey, Shaffer said that even during the height of the crisis flights resumed between the two countries, trade volume (mainly in the form of major infrastructure projects) increased and Israel continued to trust Turkish companies, engineers and technology.
While ideological factors are important in bilateral relationship, Professor Shaffer argued that a return to realpolitik—i.e. mutually and materially beneficial cooperation in security and energy—predictably took precedent over ideological differences once national anger simmered out. The Atlantic Council Scholar argued that this agreement will help Gaza but it should not be translated as Turkey controls Hamas.
Don’t Expect a Return to the Strategic Relations of the 1990s
Brookings Institute Scholar and former career-diplomat Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., Dan Arbell began by explaining that he had only known one type of relationship during his diplomatic career in the 1980s and 1990s: one of close strategic cooperation. Although he welcomed Sunday’s agreement as a positive step, Mr. Arbell was doubtful that relations would ever return to the close knit ties he experienced twenty years ago. He also suggested that this or a similar agreement could have been reached much earlier—in 2013 when Netanyahu apologized for the Mavi Marmara raid at least—but reconciliation did not fit with Erdogan’s political objectives at that time with Gezi Park and elections looming.
Former Israeli Diplomat also argued that the unfolding crisis between Russia and Turkey made Turkey realize Israel as an alternative to replace some of the aspects of their relations. Contrasting with Professor Shaffer, Mr. Arbell also credited the U.S. with a significant contribution to the signing of this agreement, as President Obama orchestrated Netanyahu’s apology and Vice President Biden was credited for fostering serious negotiations. Arbell argued that “without U.S. supervision or working behind the scenes, it will be very difficult to move this deal forward.”
Time will Test the Reconciliation Deal
Panelists warned that we shouldn’t make assumptions about what the agreement will look like on the ground because the confidence building measures are not what we see in the traditional sense. For example, it is not clear how much gas Turkey may be able to import from Israel and what that might mean for the international community. Furthermore, Israel can choose to be cooperative and helpful in allowing the transfer of Turkish aid to Gaza or it can cause considerable headaches and bureaucratic obstacles during this process.
In the end, the speakers agreed that this reconciliation may not put Israel and Turkey on the same footing as pre-2011 attack, but it does signal a positive step for citizens in both countries, most clearly Palestinians who will receive resources and new infrastructure. It is up to the two Governments to decide how strong these new ties will be, and how quickly we will see tangible energy and security cooperation.
THO was delighted to host such an engaging and topical event, and we look forward to seeing how Turkish-Israeli relations progress. If you would like to be informed of similar THO events in the future, please subscribe to receive e-mail notifications.