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. 

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Syrian refugees cross the border to Turkey in this December file photo.

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. 

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.

Erdogan hailed as a breakthrough the Israeli apology, promise to pay compensation, and partial easing of the Gaza blockade described in the phone call. Turkey agreed to drop legal cases against senior Israeli commanders.

“We are entering a new period in both Turkey and the region,” said Erdogan, who is reportedly planning to visit the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, next month. “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

The improved coordination could potentially nudge Israel to make substantive gestures toward the Palestinians, says Alon Liel, a veteran Israeli diplomat who served as charge d’affaires in Turkey.

“We realize through the Obama visit that you can get more from Israel if you put pressure as a friend,” says Mr. Liel, after Obama assured Israelis that he understood their security fears and reassured them that the US would stand with them. Now Erdogan, who has often championed the rights of the Palestinians in a very anti-Israel context, may also change his tack. “Turkey will become a major player putting enormous pressure on Israel on the Palestinian issue.”

Turkey rising?

The apology from Israel was the second diplomatic coup in two days for Erdogan, who has declared a new ascent of Turkey’s influence in the region.

The imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, on March 21 called for a cease-fire to end a decades-long war that took 40,000 lives, after secret negotiations with Erdogan’s government.

But while the Turkey-Israel reconciliation was cheered on both sides, observers say it is largely pragmatic and will take some time to rebuild fully.

“It’s not going to be a big embrace, we’re not going back to the intimate relationship that was ours five or six years ago … at least not in the short term,” says the Israeli official.

And Metehan Demir, the Ankara bureau chief for the Hurriyet newspaper and former defense writer who has followed Turkish-Israel ties since the late 1990s, says that “although the government of Turkey doesn’t like Israel too much, in pragmatic ways” both sides need each other. “For Turkey, which started a new solution process with the PKK, Turkey should eliminate its problems with key countries as well.”

In addition to mutual interests in containing the fallout from Syria, Israel is an important factor in northern Iraq, where the local Kurdish government will play a key role in ensuring PKK compliance with the ceasefire.

While Israel and Turkey had continued to do billions of dollars of trade over the past three years, the apology paves the way for a resumption of military and intelligence cooperation, which for many years before the Mavi Marmara raid had been extensive between Israel and Turkey, the eastern anchor of the NATO alliance.

“It will increase [again] over time. Not from today to tomorrow, because Turkey will try to take steps slowly,” says Demir. “But over time, especially exchanges of technology and intelligence will be seen.”

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