Time to end the 'cold war' between Turkey and Israel

With Iran nuclear talks stalled, Syria downing a Turkish fighter jet, and uncertainty following the Arab Spring, there has never been a more important time for Turkey and Israel to end their 'cold war.' They can begin with a compensation deal over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling party at the Turkish parliament in Ankara June 26. The Turkish Armed Forces' rules of engagement have changed as a result of Syria shooting down a Turkish warplane, and they will respond to any violation on the Syrian border Mr. Erdogan said. Op-ed writers Michael J. Koplow and Brent E. Sasley comment: Rapprochement between Turkey and Israel could 'foster the possibility of an international consensus on Syria.'

The Middle East’s two strongest economic and military powers, Turkey and Israel, are no closer to mending their deteriorating relationship than two years ago, when Israeli commandos intercepted an aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish human rights activists aboard the Mavi Marmara.

But ties between the two need to be urgently reset – and can be – for the benefit of these former allies and for a region in turmoil.

An urgency to reconcile has been missing up until now, but outside events are conspiring to make the incentives for rapprochement stronger. With Iran nuclear talks at a stalemate, Syria on the brink of civil war and shooting down a Turkish fighter jet, growing instability in Lebanon, and lingering uncertainty following the Arab Spring, there has never been a more important time for these two historically friendly countries to end their 'cold war.'

A reconciliation between Turkey and Israel would bring many benefits. Turkey could return to its role as facilitator in Israeli-Arab peace talks and at the same time ease the distrust of Ankara in the US Congress. The popularity of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and of his country in the Arab world could help cushion Israel against the uncertainties of the Arab Spring.

Regionally, renewed ties would put more pressure on Iran to negotiate a peaceful resolution to its nuclear standoff. It would ease tensions related to disputed natural gas claims in the Eastern Mediterranean that are embroiling Lebanon as well, and foster the possibility of an international consensus on Syria.

A repaired relationship would also promote American interests in the Middle East by removing the constant clash of its two close allies. Rapprochment could act as a stabilizing pillar and allow for a resumption of trilateral intelligence sharing, military exercises, and policy coordination.

Resetting the Turkish-Israeli relationship has proven difficult, but it’s not impossible.

True, the refusal of Israel to apologize for the Turkish citizens killed on the Mavi Marmara, combined with Ankara’s deliberate strategy of drawing closer to Arab states and Iran at the expense of ties with Israel, have created an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and anger. But this can be overcome. By focusing on areas that mutually benefit both sides, the issues dividing the two countries can slowly be ratcheted down.

In order to achieve a true rapprochement, both sides will need to adjust their expectations and compromise on their positions. Although Israel has already expressed regret, it is probably too late for it to go further and make any meaningful apology to Turkey for the deaths on the Mavi Marmara.

But some arrangement of compensation would meet one of Ankara’s key demands and could ease some of the frustration over Israel’s lack of response. It is also an option Israel seems to have agreed to in the past; the two sides were reportedly hammering out language on an agreement last summer when coalition politics in Israel intervened.

There should be no return to an inquiry into the Mavi Marmara events; by now the discussion is too politicized to reconcile the competing versions of what took place. Instead, the two should agree to a joint Israeli-Turkish commission, possibly with American participation, to explore the forms of compensation and what other, if any, measures might be taken. The commission should be staffed not by politicians but by legal scholars or practitioners who are free from the constraints of domestic political considerations.

Trade ties should also be increased as an action separate from the political sphere (this has, in fact, been gradually happening since the outbreak of tensions in 2010). More routinized trade missions should be established, in which select industries take turns traveling to each other’s countries to meet with counterparts.

New mutually beneficial commercial opportunities should be seized, including investment in Turkey, construction in Israel, and joint development projects. Given its growing private sector, Turkey has a potentially large pool of skilled labor that can be tied to Israel’s biomedical and green-energy sectors.

Goodwill gestures and confidence-building measures are also necessary. Given Turkish sensitivities over Cyprus, Israel should involve Turkey in some of the economic decisionmaking when dealing with the development of offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. This would ease Turkish suspicions that Israel is out to encircle it. And cancelled defense contracts between the two countries should also be restored. That would provide Turkey with the military technology it has been seeking elsewhere while sending the message that Israel does not view Turkey as a military foe.

In return, Ankara should stop making public demands on Israel regarding Mavi Marmara and use less accusatory language when referencing Israeli behavior in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It should also resume its bid to be a neutral arbiter and offer to host Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in an effort to make a positive contribution to the peace process.

Washington can help this reconciliation process by finding areas of general agreement and encouraging Israelis and Turks to coordinate on them. This will restore trust and an effective working relationship between Turkey and Israel. American interests are served by a stable Middle East, and having the two strongest countries in the region mend their relationship can further that goal.

Michael J. Koplow is a Ph.D. candidate in government at Georgetown University, where he writes on political development and Middle East politics. He blogs at Ottomans and Zionists. You can follow him on Twitter.

Brent E. Sasley is assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches and writes on Middle East and Israeli politics. He blogs at Mideast Matrix.You can follow him on Twitter.

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