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Behind Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, concerns about Syria

The deal will help rebuild intelligence links between Turkey and Israel. The Turks do not want to be caught off guard by any use or transfer of chemical weapons in nearby Syria. 

By Staff writer, Staff writer / March 24, 2013

Syrian refugees cross the border to Turkey in this December file photo.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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Jerusalem; and Istanbul, Turkey

Israel and Turkey have gotten back together after nearly three years, not so much because they’re in love but because of mutual concern that Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands. 

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The renewal of full diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey, brought about March 22 with strong US pressure, will enable the estranged allies to better thwart jihadi groups who have penetrated Syria and prevent them from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In a region roiled by upheaval and rising concern about Syria, the reconciliation marks a welcome step of progress – one that caught many by surprise.

“We’re all very excited…. The first thing to do is to sit together – probably not just one on one, but with Americans in the room – and share intelligence,” says an Israeli official, adding that Jordan will also be brought into the discussions about how to secure Syria’s borders. “As for us, we’re not in the business of sending ground troops to Syria. But other types of action may be possible, such as destroying certain targets from the air.” 

The potential for such cooperation was enough to woo a recalcitrant Turkey to agree to normalize relations after the May 2010 Mavi Mamara incident, in which Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks – one of them a Turkish-American – when they raided a flotilla attempting to break Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza.

“Turkey’s intelligence assets are not anywhere near Israeli intelligence assets,” says Michael Koplow, an analyst of Turkish and Israeli affairs at the Israel Institute in Washington, who recently returned from a two-week trip to Turkey.

“The Turks don’t want to be caught with chemical weapons deployed in Aleppo, which is only 50 miles from Turkish border, and not know about it ahead of time,” says Mr. Koplow, author of the blog Ottomans and Zionists. “It’s at a point where they need the Israelis’ cooperation.”

US pressure brings reconciliation

After the Mavi Mamara incident, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel and demanded that Israel apologize for the deaths and end its blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Israel refused, saying the deaths came when its commandos were assaulted by activists on the ship, and continued to seal off Gaza to prevent weapons from getting into the hands of Hamas. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador.

The Americans have long pressured both countries to reconcile. Heightened diplomatic efforts in the few weeks ahead of President Obama’s visit to Israel paid off just before he left on March 22. He reportedly called Erdogan himself, then passed the phone to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who admitted “a number of operational mistakes” by Israel’s military and conveyed Israel’s “apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury” and agreed to provide compensation, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. “Prime Minister Netanyahu also noted that Israel had substantially lifted the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and that this would continue as long as calm prevailed.

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