Expectations for ‘disaster diplomacy’: Israel and Turkey
One always hopes that out of the ashes of tragedy, some good will come. Just hours after Israel’s devastating fire in the Carmel Forest that killed 42 people, destroyed 10,000 acres of forest, and exposed the decrepit state of the country’s firefighting service and bureaucratic mismanagement, at least one opportunity seams to have reared its head. Turkey, on the day the deadly blaze broke out, dispatched two desperately needed water-dropping planes to the Carmel Mountains.
For nearly two years, Israel has watched (and actively participated) as its relations with Turkey deteriorated. The climax of the fallout was this past May’s flotilla incident, in which Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara as it attempted to break the naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip. The distance between the two Mediterranean states, however, began to widen a year-and-a-half before, during Israel’s 2009 offensive in the Strip.
The Islamic-leaning government in Ankara – a new phenomenon in the country that has been avowedly secular since Atatürk came into power nearly 90 years ago – has shown much greater support for and solidarity with the Palestinians than any previous government. The sentiment is fairly reflective of the Turkish people. Two years ago, I spent several days in Istanbul at the height of the Gaza War. Half of the billboards in the historical capital broadcasted support for the Gazan people, shopkeepers displayed hand-made signs saying, “We are all Palestinian,” and in the few instances when I told where I live, the mood suddenly became uncomfortable .
Traveling with my mother, who spent two years in Turkey several decades ago, we spent most of our time visiting family friends who are practicing conservative Muslims. They knew we were traveling from Israel and that I live in Tel Aviv, but it came up only once throughout several days of conversation. In that single instance when it the subject was broached, the not-quite-articulated understanding was that our hosts were saddened by the actions of Israel and consequently that they felt a need to distance themselves from it. I’ll get to the point of all this in a moment.
Israeli and Turkish papers (Haaretz and Huriyyet) in recent days have reported that following Ankara’s emergency aid, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a representative to finally begin reconciliation between the two countries. Speculation is being floated on both sides that some sort of “disaster diplomacy” (the opportunity to thaw hostility created by humanitarian gestures) is in the works. The opportunity is real. Expectations, however, should not be set too high.
It is in the interests of both countries to repair their relations. In recent years, the West has cautiously watched Turkey align itself more and more with the Arab and Muslim blocs, with Iran being the most bothersome of its new friends. The United States has seemed slightly worried by it. But more importantly for Turkey, its shift to the East has seriously damaged Ankara’s chances of further upgrading its ties with the European Union. Reconciling with Israel would help it show the West that it isn’t running towards Tehran.
Israel would also greatly benefit from reestablishing relations with Turkey. Since the 2009 Gaza War, it has been increasingly isolated in the international community. This perceived isolation, although based in reality, has been amplified domestically in Israel. Israelis feel shunned, especially by countries like Turkey, whom it has long considered to be its ally. Regaining an ally in the Middle East would begin to chip away at the defensive posture Jerusalem has erected as a result of feeling isolated. As Israel begins to feel less like it is under attack, the probability of it working more seriously towards peace with the Palestinians increases.
As much as Turkey’s emergency aid to Israel has presented an opportunity for reconciliation between the two countries, however, expectations shouldn’t be raised too high. Both peoples and their governments have changed since the times when a solid alliance existed between them. Turkey has slowly moved away from the secular values Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ingrained into the character of the post-Ottoman state he built. This shift has cultivated Turkish apprehensiveness towards aligning itself with a Jewish state that has occupied a Muslim population under military rule for over 40 years.
Israel, in the past decade, has adopted a “with us or against us” attitude reminiscent of George W. Bush’s post-9-11 foreign policy, a position Jerusalem is beginning to realize it cannot afford to maintain. Following an era of growing international acceptance ushered in by serious pushes in the Palestinian peace process in the 1990s, many countries that previously embraced it have begun taking backwards steps away from it. The on-the-ground situation in the Palestinian Territories that followed the Second Intifada through to the last Gaza War have further deteriorated Israel’s international stature. All of this has led to Jerusalem becoming more and more hostile towards anyone critical of its policies, most recently culminating in its undeclared war against “delegitimization.” Turkey is viewed as a delegitimizer.
Even if diplomatic efforts between Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Erdoğan are successful in restoring full diplomatic and economic ties, for the reasons mentioned above, relations between the two countries are unlikely to resemble the closeness they once enjoyed. The opportunity presented by “disaster diplomacy” should certainly be taken advantage of, but the scars inflicted and the hardened positions on both sides cannot be discounted when fantasizing about the expected results.