Turkish and Israeli officials announced on Monday a long-awaited rapprochement and reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations after being severed six years ago.
“We are very very happy,” Ivo Molinas, the editor-in-chief of Turkish Jewish newspaper Şalom and an advisor to Turkey’s Jewish community, told the Media Line. “One of the things we love the most is to see Israel and Turkey as friends.”
The reconciliation deal brings to end the freeze in relations over events on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a humanitarian flotilla to the Gaza Strip organized in part by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH) in May 2010. Israeli forces killed ten Turkish activists in a violent clash when the ship they tried to breach the military blockade around Gaza.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced that ambassadors will be exchanged within weeks. But Israel denied one of Ankara’s original conditions, a lifting of the Gaza blockade. The two sides agreed that any aid for Gaza will be subject to Israeli inspection and go through the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the deal calling it an agreement of “strategic importance” for the state of Israel, adding that it protects all of the Israeli soldiers involved from “all criminal and civil claims.” Israeli officials also said they won
Turkey will provide humanitarian relief to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with a 10,000-ton aid shipment to be sent to the Israeli port city Ashdod on Friday. Ankara will also build a 200-bed hospital, a power station and a desalination drinking-water plant in Gaza.
Umut Uzer, a professor at Istanbul Technical University with expertise in Turkish-Israeli relations, says that Turkey can play a very positive role now that it has good relations with both the Palestinians and Israel.
“Let’s hope that Turkey will have a moderating influence on Gaza, by opening hospitals,” and other humanitarian activities, he told the Media Line. “That would be beneficial for Israel as well.”
Uzer said it’s time for Ankara to stop choosing sides.
“A more balanced approach would be beneficial for both peoples, both the Palestinians and Israelis.”
A major complaint from Israel has been Ankara’s hosting of the Islamist Hamas movement, which governs Gaza and which Israel, the United States and the European Union classify as a terrorist organization.
“Israel believes that many of the terrorist attacks performed in the West Bank are planned in Turkey,” Karel Valansi, a columnist with Şalom who writes about Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East, told The Media Line. “Following the deal Hamas will stay in Turkey but Ankara will control their activities. It has to be only political. Turkey may become a facilitator between Israel and Hamas.”
Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, and has ruled the Strip until then. Israeli officials say Hamas continues to dig tunnels to attack Israel, and has called on Turkey to stop supporting Hamas.
“It is a sore point,” former Israeli Parliament member for the Yesh Atid party Dov Lipman, recently returned from a trip to Turkey, told the Media Line. “We still view Hamas as a terror organization that seeks our destruction.”
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal over the weekend, and said the government won’t expel the organization from Turkey. However, Turkish officials pledged to not support terror activities in Israel and to not allow Hamas to fundraise or conduct military operations from Turkish territory against Israel.
Professor Uzer says Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is close with Hamas and can use its influence over the group in a more positive way.
“I think Turkey could and should put more pressure on Hamas as far as military operations are concerned.”
Uzer says Turkey has been working hard for the rapprochement out of necessity for good regional relations.
“The fact that Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy has collapsed […] and also that things got really bad with Russia [after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet last November], doesn’t leave many friendly countries in the region,” he says.
Despite the collapse of political relations, economic relations have been steadily growing between Turkey and Israel, and further expansion provided another incentive for the normalization of ties.
Former Israeli parliamentarian Lipman says the reconciliation deal between Israel and Turkey has economic benefits for both sides. He said that Israel could sell natural gas, past of a very large field recently discovered, to Turkey.
“The economic benefits – especially with regards to gas – are huge,” he says, referring to the massive, recently discovered Leviathan gas field off the coast of Haifa.
The field could be hooked up to Turkey’s existing gas pipelines, selling to the Turkish market and delivering to Europe through Turkey, but no formal agreements are in place.
But Professor Uzer expresses caution at such an early stage.
“Yes, there’s natural gas, no doubt, but can it be transported to Europe, that’s something that needs to be explored economically and politically,” he says. “It sounds very exciting but I’m not so sure if it’s economically and politically feasible.”
Molinas says that the poor relations with Israel magnified anti-Semitism in the Turkish media and political discourse.
“We want to forget these past six years which were not so easy, especially the first years after the Mavi Marmara incident,” he said. “Now we hope that this harsh anti-Semitic climate will soften in a short time,” he says.
Lipman said the anti-Semitism in Turkey also had very negative affects in Israel.
“Some comments made by Turkish leaders have been taken very badly. We are not happy about any hints of extremism or anti-Jewish beliefs and ideologies. These are very concerning and lead to lack of trust.”
However, Lipman says most Israelis are happy that relations have improved.
“Israelis really like the Turkish people and Turkish culture. They would love for there to be a strong relationship with the Turkish people,” he said. “Hopefully, things can calm down and we can see a lot of tourism in both directions.”