Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Turkey lets off Tel Aviv

Netanyahu’s apology to Erdogan may appear to have broken the ice, but in reality the ground had never really frozen,
writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A few weeks ago a senior diplomatic source at Turkey’s Foreign Ministry notably stated that Ankara’s ties with Tel Aviv could improve after Israeli elections. A few days later, during a visit to Copenhagen and in an interview with a Danish newspaper, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan retracted his “bellicose” statements against Zionism that he previously described as “terrorist”.

The statements were an overture that encouraged US President Barack Obama during his visit to occupied Jerusalem last week to put gentle pressure from one friend on another. In a significant move, Binyamin Netanyahu apologised to his Turkish counterpart by telephone for the Mavi Marmara incident (the aid ship bound to Gaza that was stormed by Israeli forces in May 2010, with nine killed and several injured), promising to pay compensation to the victims’ families.

This begs the question: have they turned over a new leaf? Will ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv get a boost in the coming phase? More importantly, were ties ever completely severed or frozen? Read on.

Here, in Ghazi Othman, the upper class district housing embassies and residences of diplomats from various Arab and foreign countries, the Israeli embassy seems all but abandoned. There isn’t much movement on site or around it, except for tighter security measures in anticipation of Fridays of rage, although they are few. After they release their anger, the crowds quickly disperse without damaging any public or private property.

Although rallies have noticeably decreased after senior staff — including the ambassador — left the embassy, and only the third secretary remains, everything continued as usual between the two countries without downscaling relations, especially on the economic and military fronts. If anything, there was an increase. This is evident at the consulate in Istanbul that is constantly busy.

Israel’s trade office in Istanbul issued figures showing an increase in trade between the two countries. Turkey’s imports from Israel stood at $1.31 billion in 2010, and jumped to $1.85 billion last year. This harmony no doubt pleased Washington, which was quick to submit to Congress Turkey’s request for weapons worth $140 million to develop its air defence systems, and there are indications the deal will be approved.

Naturally, some Israelis exaggerate the looks of disapproval they receive here and there from citizens. But mostly things are the same. At exactly 10pm every day a voice on the public announcement speaker at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul calls on travellers to Ben Gurion Airport to go to the boarding gate. There are no extra security measures at check-in counters — all airlines are treated the same. There is no coolness or displeasure; no one staring at the faces checking in who are Arabs, Turks, Israelis and other nationalities.

Turkey and Israel fell out almost three years ago. At first, Turkey escalated its rhetoric and denounced the “entity usurping Palestinian land”. At every opportunity Turkish officials, led by Erdogan, unleashed their rage and condemnation on the “abominable and hostile actions” of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Tel Aviv restrained itself and did not respond with fiery statements, but merely refused to respond to Turkish demands. As time passed and matters calmed down there was a need to find a way to surpass the confrontation, and Ankara began to look for opportunities to forge ahead. These included participating in putting out forest fires in northern Haifa, a gesture warmly welcomed by Netanyahu himself. There were also leaked reports in the Western media, re-aired in the domestic media, about secret meetings between politicians on both sides.

At first, officials in Ankara refused to comment, but finally the Foreign Ministry reluctantly confirmed foreign media reports, justifying them as routine if they serve the interests of the people (in reference to efforts to resolve the Mavi Marmara issue). At the same time, it asserted Ankara would not abandon its earlier demand for an official apology and payment of compensation to the victims’ families, and finally lifting the siege on Gaza.

Interestingly, when the military operation Pillars of Cloud against Gaza began in mid-November, Bulent Arinc, number two in the Turkish government and party and former parliament speaker, said despite tattered relations with Tel Aviv, Ankara would resume contacts with Israel to end the assault on the Gaza Strip. Less than two hours later, after Friday prayers, Erdogan outright denied what his deputy had said, asserting that relations with “the usurper and occupier of Palestinian land” were frozen.

Within days, Arinc was proven right as his country participated in efforts by Egypt to end the attack on Gaza and reach a truce. The development presaged not merely increased intelligence cooperation between the two countries, but a revival of political relations between them.

Strangely, parallel to the war on Gaza, the government announced creating a maritime bridge between the port of Iskenderun near Syria to the south and Haifa, to send Turkish trucks to Palestine, and from there by land to Jordan and then onto Gulf countries, as the Levant route is blocked.

Naturally, these policies are greatly criticised, mostly by Islamist groups, of whom Erdogan is supposedly a pillar. They describe what is taking place as dirty bargaining that caused Ankara to lift its veto on Israeli cooperation with NATO in return for deploying Patriot missile batteries in Turkish territories.

 

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