Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan last Friday, helping unfreeze nearly three years of cold relations between the two countries. Netanyahu expressed regret “for any errors that could have led to loss of life” during the Israeli raid on Turkish ship attempting to run Israel and Egypt’s blockade of Gaza in May 2010. He also “agreed to complete the agreement on compensation” to the victims’ families. According to a statement released later, Erdogan accepted the apology. During the 30 minute conversation, with President Obama standing by, Netanyahu and Erdogan also agreed to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Nine activists died on the Mavi Marmara nearly three years ago when the ship’s captain refused an Israeli order to dock at an Israeli port, rather than in Gaza. Israeli commandos then boarded the vessel and came under attack. In response, Ankara expelled the Israeli Ambassador and downgraded military ties with Israel. An Israeli inquiry into the response of IDF personnel criticized the operation’s planning. A UN report criticized Israel for not “anticipat[ing] that there would be significant violent opposition to the boarding,” even as it upheld the legality of the Gaza blockade and sharply criticized Turkey’s close association with the IHH, an organization with terrorist ties.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses parliament in Ankara, on June 26, 2012. (Photo: AFP)
In a later post on his Facebook page, Netanyahu cited the Syrian civil war as the main factor behind the rapprochement. “The fact that the crisis in Syria intensifies from moment to moment was the main consideration in my view,” wrote Israeli Prime Minister. Shelling has hit Turkish towns bordering Syria while Israel worries that weapons could be passed to Hezbollah and other Islamic extremist organizations. Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror described the situation as, “Between us and Turkey is a country that is falling apart and that has chemical weapons.” Israel’s intelligence capabilities could help Turkey prepare for the possibility that Bashar Assad may lose his grip on Syrian chemical weapons.
Warmer relations between the two countries could also produce benefits on a number of other fronts. NATO radar bases in Turkey could provide intelligence to Israel’s air defense system in any conflict with Iran. Bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel reached $4 billion in 2011, although Israel did not permit weapons with Israeli components to be delivered to Turkey, and tourism between the two could thrive again as well. Turkey has an interest in developing Israeli gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea.
Even with this latest confidence building measure tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem are likely to continue. Erdogan recently called Zionism “a crime against humanity” and has denied that Hamas is a terror organization. He also plans to visit Gaza next month, a move that drew criticism from Palestinian sources. While Israel and Turkey are both important U.S. allies in the region, their strong disagreement on critical issues remains.