For a brief moment on March 22, relations between Turkey and Israel seemed to be getting on the right track.
From a cabin near the tarmac in Ben Gurion Airport as he was preparing to return home after a successful trip to Israel, President Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his side. In an apparent twinkling, Obama convinced Erdogan that it was time to normalize relations with Israel and then handed the phone to Netanyahu, who sealed the deal.
But nearly five months later, optimism over the prospects of an American-brokered rapprochement has all but vanished. The normalization process has turned out to be slow and painful as both parties continue to haggle over its terms.
Furthermore, after several months of calm relations, Erdogan returned to anti-Israel rhetoric, accusing Jerusalem on August 20 of orchestrating the military coup in Egypt which brought down the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Turkish leader said he was basing his comment on the words of an unnamed Jewish French intellectual who had said before the election in Egypt that even if the Brotherhood wins, it will not be allowed to rule the country. The United States condemned Erdogan’s remarks, calling them “offensive, unsubstantiated and wrong.”
The deal the three leaders sealed in March aimed to resolve bitter conflicts over Israel’s 2010 commando attack on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara as it sought to break Israel’s siege of Gaza with a shipment of humanitarian goods. Nine Turks, including one Turkish American, were shot dead in the raid. Ten Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously.
During the phone call, Netanyahu and Erdogan agreed that Israel would compensate the families of victims of the episode and apologize for the incident’s outcome. In return, lawsuits filed by Turkish citizens against Israel would be dropped. The apology delivered by Netanyahu stressed Israel’s regret over the loss of life and for “any mistake that could have led to loss of life,” but did not include any Israeli admission that raiding the ship was illegal or wrong, as initially claimed by the Turkish government.
But the follow-up talks have foundered, and according to American analysts, the United States largely views the stalled negotiations as stemming from Turkey’s reluctance to finalize the process. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been cautious about wading once again into this dispute.
“Turkey is a bit like Israel,” said Ross Wilson, who served as America’s ambassador to Ankara from 2005 to 2008. “The Turks don’t like to be told what to do, and therefore it is not easy to use sticks or carrots to shape Turkish policy.” Wilson, who now directs the Eurasia center at the Atlantic Council, said the best prescription for moving the process forward is patience. “In the long run, the regional factors will push the parties closer,” he said.
But in the short run, the lack of normal ties between Jerusalem and Ankara is a source of concern for all sides that share an eagerness to put the Mavi Marmara incident behind them and deal with bigger issues that have since plagued the region, mainly the Syrian civil war.