The recent “apology” of Israel to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010 has changed, according to some analysts, the geopolitical balance in South Eastern Mediterranean. Was the “apology” of Israel a real act of repentance or just a tactical move designed to serve its short-term interests? What are the prospects of the Israeli-Turkish relations in the future?
Firstly, we should remember that the beginning of the cooling of Israeli-Turkish relations was the verbal attack of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the Israeli President Shimon Peres, during the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009 . The diplomatic tension peaked after the Gaza flotilla incident and from that point Erdoğan has often criticized Israel for its foreign policy. At the Fifth Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations, he stated that “Islamophobia is a crime against humanity” and he compared it with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism . All this period, Israel has tried to maintain a moderate attitude toward Turkey and made secret diplomatic contacts in order to improve its relationship with Ankara. Ultimately, Obama’s visit to Israel in March was the ideal opportunity for both parties to restore their diplomatic bonds. Obama, who maintains an excellent personal relationship with Erdogan, took advantage of the absence of Avigdor Lieberman from the new Israeli government scheme and he “persuaded” Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to the Turkish leader for the Mavi Marmara incident. The Israeli Prime Minister was also committed to provide compensation for victims of the Mavi Marmara, but he denied lifting the blockade of Gaza . These political actions appear to have been planned before the Obama visit. The Turkish newspaper Radical wrote on February that “Israel may apologize to Turkey for operational errors in the Mavi Marmara case” and that “Turkey is prepared to drop the demand against Israel to lift the siege”. Therefore, the first conclusion could be drawn from these facts, is that although Erdoğan presents himself as the leader who forced Israel to apologize for its actions, essentially, he fell back on one of his basic initial demands. This will have long term adverse effects on his political profile, as on the one hand, the continuation of the Gaza blockade will make him look vulnerable in the role of the “defender” of the Palestinians and the Arab world, while on the other hand, repeating his aggressive stance toward Israel will bring him in confront with President Obama and the U.S.
The second point that we must notice, is how Turkey has managed the communicative aspect of this “apology”. In many public places in Ankara, posters showing a “prideful” Erdogan and a “sad” Netanyahu writing: “Israel apologized to Turkey. Dear Prime Minister, we are grateful that you let our country experience this pride”. This attitude of Turkey demonstrates that Erdoğan remains firmly committed to the vision of reviving the Ottoman Empire and considers his country as the next great power in the Middle East. In the long term, this Turkish stance will hinder the establishment of friendly relations with Israel, which feels the “Islamist arc” stretching menacingly around its borders. The Israeli minister of economy and trade, Naftali Bennett, stated that: “Since the apology was made public, it appears Erdoğan is doing everything he can to make Israel regret it, while conducting a personal and vitriolic campaign at the expense of Israel-Turkey relations. Let there be no doubt -no nation is doing Israel a favor by renewing ties with it. It should also be clear to Erdoğan that if Israel encounters in the future any terrorism directed against us, our response will be no less severe”. Therefore, the management of the Israeli “apology” by Turkey reveals the real intentions of Ankara for the region and it necessarily limits the process of rapprochement between the two countries.
Third, some analysts believe that improving Israel-Turkey relations will lead to a closer cooperation of the two countries in the energy sector, thereby negating the efforts to create an economic and strategic triangle among Israel, Greece and Cyprus. They are also referring to the possibility of constructing an Israeli-Turkish pipeline that would transport Israeli natural gas to the rest of the Europe. How likely is the construction of such a pipeline? The route that this pipeline may follow can have three alternatives: a) reaching to Turkey through the territory of Syria b) passing through the Cypriot EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and the occupied North Cyprus (either by land or underwater) toward Turkey c) circumventing the occupied North Cyprus and heading toward Turkey through the EEZ of Lebanon or through the EEZ of Syria. The first and the third routes should probably be excluded due to the unstable situation in Syria and the poor diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Israel, while the latter implies a de facto recognition of the occupied North Cyprus as an independent state, something which does not seem to be a desirable option for the Israeli diplomacy at the present time. Moreover, such a pipeline will make economic sense only if it exclusively supplies Turkey with the Israeli gas, as the existing infrastructure is insufficient to transport the gas to Europe and it requires the construction of new pipelines with larger capacity and length. Therefore, the economic incentives (although they may exist) cannot fully justify the Israeli “apology”.
Why then, Israel has agreed to undergo a minor diplomatic “defeat” by Turkey? It seems obvious for Israel, that improving its relationship with Turkey is the first and necessary step in order to safeguard its regional security. The instability of Syria -where there is an involvement of extremist Islamist elements- and the nuclear threat of Iran, require a flexible Israeli diplomacy. In a recent lecture given at the Institute of International Relations in Athens, Yossi Alpher (ex-intelligence officer of the Mossad which has served as the director of Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University) stated that “the most significant strategic for Israel is the Iranian nuclear threat but the most urgent strategic is Syria’s collapse”. Furthermore, he estimated that Turkey’s hostility won’t favor the construction of an Israeli-Turkish pipeline (which would bind Israel in a permanent relationship with Ankara) and he also added that “Netanyahu had been planning this apology for 6 months while the text was written 2 years ago”. Israel had simply been waiting for the appropriate time (the Obama visit) that would make US a “guarantor” of this reconciliation.
In conclusion, the Netanyahu’s “apology” seems to be a realistic foreign policy decision of Israel, which feels to be threatened by the recent developments in the Middle East and it’s trying to preserve its regional security. The arrogant and aggressive rhetoric of Erdoğan and his excessive hegemonic ambitions pose a risk for Turkey, as Israel –which has largely based its survival on its historical memory- won’t easily forget the provocative attitude of Ankara. This means that if Turkey doesn’t change soon its foreign policy, it will be forced to ask its own “apology” in the future.
Mr. Michalis E. Diakantonis is an International Affairs expert.
This article was published at the Division for Euro-Atlantic Studies of Panteion University