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Turkey and Israel meet secretly: Has reason returned?

Perhaps leaders in Israel and Turkey are beginning to realize the dire consequences of burying their important relationship over the unfortunate incident with the Gaza flotilla.

By / July 2, 2010

A demonstrator burns an Israeli flag as he sits behind a Turkish flag during a protest against Israel on June 5 in Istanbul. Nine Turks were killed during the May 31 Israeli raid on an aid ship bound for Gaza.

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic/Newscom

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That Turkish and Israeli officials met secretly in Brussels on Wednesday must mean that leaders in both countries are asking the what-if question.

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What if this relationship remains in its near-dead state, almost buried by the Israeli killing of nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla on May 31?

The answers are multiple and sobering.

For Israel, no revival of ties means it has lost its best Muslim friend in a hostile region. The two countries have been close for decades, secretly signing a pact in the 1950s that stipulated, for instance, that if Israel were attacked it could harbor its navy in Turkish waters.

For Turkey, a moribund relationship means it can’t carry out its signature foreign policy of “zero problems” on its borders. In recent years, it’s tried to act as a regional problem solver and mediator – including between Israel and Syria. The breakdown between Turkey and Israel not only prolongs problems, it could cause some.

Turkey loses something else. It risks what makes it unique: its ability to act as a bridge between Muslim and Western countries and cultures.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, gets down to the essence when he writes that “being Muslim does not make Turkey unique…; there are, after all, 57 other Muslim-majority countries.”

Turkish-Israeli ties began to fray with Israel’s invasion of Gaza in January 2009, after it got fed up with mortar attacks. The unfortunate flotilla incident made things worse. Turkey pulled its ambassador and canceled joint military exercises. It has demanded an apology, an end to the Gaza blockade, and an international investigation of the flotilla deaths.

Anti-Israel rhetoric is red hot in Turkey. It boils on the street and in the offices of the ruling party, the AKP. Senior party officials were in Washington recently at an off-the-record meeting that I attended. I had met one of leaders on a reporting trip I took to Turkey in 2008. The animosity over Israel that was expressed stateside was deep and, to me, disturbing.

In Israel, the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, from a right-wing party, is also steaming mad. He was not consulted about this week’s secret meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli Industry and Trade Minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. The meeting occurred with the approval of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and involved an official far more friendly with Turkey than Mr. Lieberman, whose deputy earlier this year publicly humiliated the Turkish ambassador by making him sit in a low chair.

The details of a patch-up could be brokered by Washington, allies of both countries. Indeed, the secret meeting reportedly came at Washington’s instigation, with President Obama paving the way when he met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 meeting in Toronto.

Surely Washington has also been asking the what-if question, and realizing that the Middle East peace process can also suffer as a result of long-term freeze between Turkey and Israel. It must now work on getting both parties to again see what’s possible.

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