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Israel-Turkey Relations Hit New Low?

Zachary Fisher

Despite its experience fighting terrorism, Israel was excluded from the first meeting of the American-sponsored Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) Friday in Istanbul, apparently at Turkish government insistence. The GCTF is an important part of President Obama’s counterterrorism program and an attempt to enhance American ties with Islamic countries. The 29-country forum included ten Arab and/or Muslim countries, of which only Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey have diplomatic relations (albeit minimal) with Israel. Largely anti-American Pakistan was there, as was Egypt, which has a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament, and Saudi Arabia, an exporter of fundamentalist Islamist doctrine and former financier of al Qaeda. Turkey itself is not without controversy, having hosted Hamas representatives even though the U.S. and EU consider it a terrorist group.

The GCTF exclusion added insult to injury as Israel was also barred, possibly at Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s demand, from attending last week’s Turkish-funded World Economic Forum meeting on the Middle East. No Israeli representatives were present to defend Israel when Erdogan launched into an anti-Zionist tirade at the conference’s opening address, accusing Israel of killing Palestinian children and making the obligatory Gaza is “the largest open-air prison in the world” remark. Ankara has made a habit of insulting Jerusalem; the Turkish Foreign Ministry vetoed Israeli participation in a NATO summit in Chicago last month. Many suspect that Turkey has adopted anti-Zionist policies in order to curry favor in the Arab world, where non-Arab Turkey and non-Arab Iran vie for influence.

Hamas Premier Ismail Haniyeh, left, and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan embrace in Ankara. (Photo: AP)

Turkey and Israel, which only five years ago discussed sharing missile defense technology, have been at odds since the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010. The ship, which carried armed Turkish jihadists seeking confrontation with Israel, was part of an activist flotilla attempting to break Israel and Egypt’s lawful blockade of the Gaza Strip. The blockade was designed to prevent materials from entering Gaza that would allow Hamas to continue its rocket attacks on Israel. Israeli commandos, under assault on the ship, launched a botched, but legal, operation that resulted in the deaths of nine Turks. Turkey expelled Israeli diplomats from Ankara and suspended military cooperation. Last month, a Turkish court indicted four senior Israeli military officials on charges of murder. Erdogan has said he will not even consider restoring ties until Israel apologizes for the deaths, lifts its blockade of Gaza, and compensates the families of the dead. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman indicated that Israel will not be pressured into apology by Turkey.

In the wake of diminished relations with Turkey, Israel took the opportunity this week for the first time to recognize the genocide of the Armenian people during WWI. In the past, Israel had refused to publicly characterize the deaths as “genocide” in deference to its excellent relations with Ankara. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said he believed Israel had been hypocritical in that regard because the Jewish State condemns Holocaust denial, which requires Israel then to condemn the denial of the Armenian genocide.

Although Turkish-Israeli political relations are currently dismal, the relationship is very important to both in the long run. Having a Muslim ally such as Turkey is extremely important to Israel in achieving legitimacy in the Middle East. Turkey has benefited from Israeli military capabilities, including modernization and access to Israeli drones. Furthermore, Turkey is well aware that its Ottoman roots make it suspect among the Arab States. As such, it has prized its relations with non-Arab Israel (and at some times Iran) even as it competes for influence in the Middle East. And trade figures are revealing–bilateral trade increased 35% over the past year.