Israel and Turkey have reached an understanding on the outlines of an agreement to begin restoring full diplomatic relations after five years since Mavi Marmara raid during which Israeli marines killed 10 passengers on board.
It was from the international press that the Turkish public learned about bilateral talks in Zurich. According to the understanding, Turkey and Israel will restore full diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors. Israel would pay $20 million as compensation to the families of the victims of Mavi Marmara and Turkey would drop criminal charges it has filed against Israeli officers. The agreement is boosted with the possibility of building the long desired pipeline to bring natural gas from Israel to Turkey. What was astonishing in the deal was the absence of the issue of the Gaza blockade which was one of the three conditions of the Turkish side besides apology and compensation and the new condition from Israel; to expel Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri who is believed to orchestrate attacks against Israelis in the West Bank from Turkey.
The breakthrough in the bilateral relations came with the appointment of Dore Gold as the new director general for the Foreign Ministry. One of his first acts was to meet with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, a positive step emphasizing the importance Israel gave to the normalization of the relations. On the Turkish side, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already moderated his remarks on Israel and did not use it during his last election campaign.
Without new elections on the horizon, general developments in the region forced Turkey and Israel to improve ties. Throughout December, official statements from both sides signaled a positive approach.
During the UN climate conference in Paris, Erdoğan hinted that it would be possible to repair ties with Israel. This was a short, unexpected but powerful statement.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz signaled that Israel was looking for new export options for its gas including Turkey. The same day Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that there were ongoing talks with Ankara about importing Israeli gas to Turkey. Erdoğan’s spokesperson İbrahim Kalın responded by saying “If Israel takes steps on this issue, we will of course take the needed steps.” There was a flirtation going on, but it was when Erdoğan said “Normalization between Turkey and Israel would be beneficial for both countries, Palestine and the entire region,” that the process gained momentum.
On December 17, we all learned about the details of the preliminary agreement between Turkey and Israel.
The shares of Zorlu Energy which is involved in energy projects in Israel, rose 10% the next day. Main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu welcomed the news. Two days later Erdoğan met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Istanbul. Under the preliminary deal Turkey expelled the Hamas leader Saleh al-Aruori who controls the West Bank activities of Hamas. Hamas leadership in Gaza looked relieved by the expel of this powerful adversary. A surprise statement came by the spokesperson for AKP Ömer Çelik. He declared that the Israeli state and the Israeli people were friends of Turkey. This was a shocking statement for the Turkish ears filled with anti-Israeli rhetoric since the Gaza war in 2008. While the U.S. welcomed a potential agreement between Israel and Turkey. When the criticism from the Turkish public escalated, Kılıçdaroğlu changed his tone and criticized the agreement by saying the Palestinian cause was sacred. He was using this sensitive issue to gain domestic political benefit. Anti-Israel rhetoric was always a beneficiary issue in Turkish politics.
The Turkish public was not ready to the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation. The critics increased. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu tried to explain that their main objective is to provide more help to Palestinians. Turkish Trade Minister praised the agreement saying it would allow Turkish products to enter Gaza more easily.
But it was not easy to change the horrific perception of Israel in the Turkish public. No one has ever worked on that issue. The public resisted such a dramatic change.
The government was trying to convince the public when a local court in Kayseri ruled for a $86,000 fine in damages from Israel during the raid of Mavi Marmara. IHH, the Humanitarian Aid Foundation that organized Mavi Marmara condemned the talks. BDS movement Turkey organized two events in Ankara and Istanbul to protest the talks with “illegitimate State of Israel.”
There are some weak voices that say Ankara should never have sent the Mavi Marmara in the first place. But in general there is an anti-Israeli sentiment transformed to anti-Jewish sentiment in Turkey as the government used to blame Israel using Islamic references even for domestic problems. The enmity towards Israel and anti-Semitism is in dangerous levels and in my opinion it is one of the main obstacle behind the normalization of the relations. As the government is not insulated from popular sentiments, it has to deal with it seriously.
On February 10, Turkey and Israel have met again in full secrecy in Geneva. We don’t know the details of the talks. But one thing is for sure, it is not enough to cease the anti-Israel critics to change the minds of the Turkish public about Israel.
Karel Valansi Diplomatic Observer March 2016