Behind President Obama’s surprise brokering of a mending of ties between Israel and Turkey Friday stands a deepening regional crisis – namely Syria – that suddenly trumped the dispute that had soured relations between two key US partners.
US officials say that almost since Mr. Obama arrived in Israel Wednesday the president had been working on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reach out to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an effort to repair broken Israeli-Turkish relations.
Just before Obama departed from Tel Aviv’s airport for Jordan, the president and Mr. Netanyahu stepped into a trailer, and the Israeli leader placed a phone call to Mr. Erdogan. Obama also took part in the call.
The US officials also suggest that the growing and increasingly worrisome impact the Syrian conflict is having in the region – some aspects are of growing concern in particular to Israel – was a key motivation behind Obama’s go-between efforts.
In a statement issued after the phone call, Obama said the United States attaches “great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security.”
In comments to reporters aboard Air Force One, a senior administration official emphasized the importance the president places on regional cooperation – and in particular on good relations between Israel and Turkey “in dealing with regional security challenges that both of them have a significant stake in.”
Netanyahu began his call to Erdogan by telling the Turkish leader that he had been “discussing with President Obama the importance of regional relations, the importance of Turkey-Israel cooperation,” according to the US official.
Once-warm relations between Israel and Turkey went into a deep freeze after a 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish aid ship destined for Gaza that left nine people dead, all either Turks or of Turkish descent. Diplomatic ties were severed, and Turkish rhetoric toward Israel grew increasingly caustic as Israel refused to apologize for the deadly raid. Israel maintained that the raid sought to enforce what it considers a legal blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, and that the loss of life ensued after Israeli soldiers were attacked.
In his conversation Friday with Erdogan, Netanyahu apologized for “operational errors” in the military action against the aid flotilla that led to loss of life.
It was still unclear Friday exactly what the two leaders had agreed to in terms of official normalizing of relations. In its first statement on the issue, Netanyahu’s office said the two leaders had agreed to normalize relations and to exchange ambassadors. But a later, revised statement omitted any reference to normalization or to exchanging ambassadors.
A statement out of Erdogan’s office said that the prime minister has accepted Netanyahu’s apology on behalf of the people of Turkey, and that the two countries agreed to conclude an “agreement on compensation” over the flotilla incident.
The US official said only that the phone call was an “important step forward” and that “we do believe that they can cooperate while they have differences.”
In tweets released later Friday by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey had informed Israel "many times" that an apology was a "must" for normalizing relations. He went on to tweet that "all of our demands have been met."
Erdogan said he agreed that “deterioration of the relationship between Turkey and Israel” was particularly “regrettable” because of that relationship’s “vital strategic importance for the peace and stability of the region.”
The mending of the two countries’ diplomatic relations, and Obama’s Middle East trip that provided the impetus for the repair work to occur, unfolded in the context of a deepening crisis in Syria with the potential for dire repercussions in both Turkey and Israel.
Allegations early in the week of both sides in the Syrian war using chemical weapons prompted Obama to repeat his “red line” concerning any use of chemical weapons and to declare that such use would be a “game changer” for the US in its approach to the conflict.
Israel has grown increasingly concerned about events in Syria – and in particular about the burgeoning presence of Islamist extremists from around the region, some of whom are already vowing to carry on against Israel once Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is toppled. Israel is also concerned about the potential for Mr. Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons to fall in the hands of Hezbollah and other militants.
Turkey is confronting an ever-growing Syrian refugee population, and worries about being sucked into the conflict, especially if an increasingly desperate Assad is tempted to launch cross-border attacks.
US officials note that the US had been working with Turkey and Israel for at least the last two years to encourage a reversal in their deteriorating relations.
But if Obama was able to pull off his diplomatic coup now, the two countries’ deep worries about a common threat – a crumbling and destabilizing Syria – was a good part of the reason.