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Gaza and Strains in Israeli-Turkish Relations

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 20, 2010

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Relations between Israel and Turkey, once very solid, have been strained ever since Israeli troops attacked Gaza in December 2008, says CFR Mideast expert Steven A. Cook. He says Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his intentions to improve relations with Israel on the condition that Israel make life easier for Palestinians living in Gaza. Cook calls this a "miscalculation" on Erdogan's part. "It would probably be better for the prime minister to make his feelings known, but at the same time emphasize the importance of Turkish-Israeli relations, emphasize the strategic nature of them, emphasize the common interests of the two countries," Cook says.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel in 1949, and relations were good until very recent times. What happened to make the relationship fairly tense lately?

The immediate cause of the tensions was the Gaza operation by Israeli forces in December 2008/January 2009, which was called Operation Cast Lead. The Turks were extremely critical of the Israeli military operations, and their anger was aggravated because then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been in Ankara two days before the launch of Operation Cast Lead. He was there negotiating with the Syrians for a peace treaty through Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, but Olmert, upon his departure, did not inform Erdogan that this operation was pending. This was deeply embarrassing to Erdogan. And of course the Israeli conduct of their military operations from the perspective of Ankara was wildly disproportionate for the rocket attacks that the Israelis were suffering.

Prior to that, the relationship had been pretty good, but there had been some warning signs of problems. The Israelis, at the time of their unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, had undertaken some military actions in Gaza, which Erdogan referred to as "state terrorism." But there had been an upside to the relationship: Erdogan had visited Israel, had signed some key agreements with the Israelis, had met with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Sharon was supposed to go to Ankara before he fell into his coma in January 2006 as the result of a massive stroke. But the big issue here was operation Cast Lead and what happened in Gaza, the deep embarrassment to Erdogan and from the perspective of Ankara, Israel's reckless conduct of the military operation.

Why do you think Olmert never mentioned it? Because it was a state secret?

There's historical precedent that the Israelis keep these things very, very quiet. If you remember back in September of 2007 when the Israelis bombed that alleged nuclear facility in Syria, the entire Israeli leadership was tight-lipped. They didn't say a word. And this is extraordinary for a country where there are constant leaks and constant efforts to get different messages out to their own press and the world media. The Turks feel that they were deeply embarrassed.

If you talk to Turkish and Israeli diplomats, there has been no change in the way in which they pursue relations, but obviously the public rhetoric of the relationship all signals a significant deterioration.

There were two issues for the Turks at the time. One, Erdogan was gearing up for a domestic election. There was going to be local and provincial elections, and the opposition parties could potentially use this relationship between Erdogan and Olmert to their advantage. You know, beating up Israel in Turkey can be profitable politically. So there was this concern on the part of the AKP [Erdogan's party] leadership that Erdogan would look either like he was in collusion with the Israelis, or was too weak to stop the Israelis from undertaking this action in Gaza. And then beyond the parochial domestic politics in Turkey was the larger issue of Turkey's efforts over the course of the last six or seven years, to extend and improve its relations with the Arab world and exert a growing influence in the Arab World, and, once again, Erdogan and the AKP leadership did not want to be seen as if they were colluding with the Israelis in this operation.

At the time of Operation Cast Lead, the Turks were mediating between Israel and Syria. Had they made much progress?

At the time Olmert was in Ankara, there was literally a negotiation going on with Olmert in one room of the prime minister's residence while the prime minister was on the phone with the Syrian president, and they were going back and forth, and by a variety of reports, they were actually getting closer and closer to a deal. The Turks had been mediating and conducting these indirect negotiations between the Syrians and the Israelis for the better part of 2008. The negotiations stopped after the Gaza incursion.

In January there was a new election in Israel which brought into power the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March, who is much hard-line than Olmert was. I guess relations have not gotten much better, right?

They haven't gotten better, and the Turks say it won't unless the humanitarian situation in Gaza improves, the Israelis stop their blockade of Gaza, and now, in a new twist, they also say that Israeli settlement construction has to stop. So the relationship has never really recovered; the same amount of mistrust continues. And the national medias in each country have fed these problems that have cropped up between the two governments. The Netanyahu government and the Turks have not been able to repair the relationship, although the institutionalized relationship has continued. If you talk to Turkish and Israeli diplomats, there has been no change in the way in which they pursue relations, but obviously the public rhetoric of the relationship all signals a significant deterioration even from a couple of years ago.

Now of course in January, even before the new government came into power, there was this flare up at the Davos meeting.

That's correct, that was in January of 2009 at the World Economic Forum. There was a public flare up between Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Erdogan, which resulted in Erdogan walking out of the public meeting. Very quickly, Turkish and Israeli diplomats did everything they could to patch up the rift, but again, the relationship has been characterized by mistrust, and Erdogan has been very vocal in his criticism of Israel since that time. He has taken quite a number of opportunities to criticize Israel for Israel's policy in Gaza. Recently he was in Lebanon, and he called Israel a threat to peace. So these are the kinds of things that do not necessarily make for a warm relationship between the two countries. The prime minister's strategy is to speak out as forcefully as possible in the hopes of putting enough pressure on them that they will alter their policies. This is a miscalculation on his part. In fact, it would probably be better for the prime minister to make his feelings known, but at the same time emphasize the importance of Turkish-Israeli relations, emphasize the strategic nature of them, emphasize the common interests of the two countries. For Erdogan to be constantly criticizing the Israelis, with very little mention of the rocket attacks from Gaza, Hamas' terrorism, and so on, is not going to have much effect on Israeli thinking, and is going to be dismissed as criticism of Israel. It's likely to be counterproductive, and it has been counterproductive.

We had this flare up just in the last week when Israel leveled a formal protest to the Turkish ambassador in Israel over a TV show. Talk about that.

A privately owned Turkish television station aired a program. It's a television series in which Israeli agents are portrayed kidnapping Palestinian children and converting them to Judaism. And this is not the first time that this series has portrayed Israelis in an inappropriate light. Previously, the Israelis had been portrayed as randomly shooting at Palestinian children, things along those lines. So this is pretty ugly stuff. And the Israeli foreign ministry, under Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has wanted to pursue a more robust policy in relation to these types of perceived provocations from other countries. And they summoned the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol, to the foreign ministry, invited cameramen to record it, and placed him in a chair lower than the deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, and placed no Turkish flag on the table between them, only an Israeli flag, intentionally trying to embarrass him. Of course, what the Israeli foreign ministry was doing was dressing down Ambassador Celikkol over a television program that appeared on a private station.

If the Turkish prime minister continues his drumbeat of criticism over Israel's policy in Gaza, it is likely that there will be additional rounds of mutual recriminations.

So there were two problems: The Turkish government is not in control over this private television station, and two, the way in which the Israelis voiced their protest to many observers violated almost every diplomatic protocol. In fact, Ambassador Celikkol called it the most shameful experience of his entire diplomatic career. This created an uproar. And the Turks demanded an official apology. Initially, Ayalon refused. It was only when Turkish President Abdullah Gül said "unless there is a formal apology from Israel, we're going to put Celikkol on the first plane back to Ankara." That brought results. The next day, Prime Minister Netanyahu and [President] Shimon Peres stepped in and forced an apology from Ayalon. Now the interesting thing about this was [that] the defense minister, Ehud Barak, was scheduled to go to Turkey a few days later to try to patch up relations between Israel and Turkey. This [incident] was read by some as part of a Lieberman effort to sabotage Barak's efforts to salvage the relationship because Lieberman wanted to teach the Turks a lesson. The question, though, is what is the point of diplomacy? Generally people understand that diplomacy is to improve relations between countries, not to make them worse, and it was amateurish and heavy-handed, and it obviously made the situation that was not great to begin with worse.

And how did Barak's visit to Turkey turn out, in the face of the diplomatic "slight."

By all measures, Barak's visit went well. Turkey's minister of national defense, Vecdi Gönül, re-affirmed the Israel-Turkey strategic relationship; Barak had a three and one-half hour meeting with the Turkish foreign minister [Ahmet Davutoglu]. Both parties indicated that they wanted to put the recent spat behind them, and an Israeli sale of unmanned aerial vehicles [drones] seems to be on track. Going forward, however, the relationship seems to be somewhat diminished. Despite the positive signals during and after Barak's meetings, mistrust between the governments remains. If the Turkish prime minister continues his drumbeat of criticism over Israel's policy in Gaza, it is likely that there will be additional rounds of mutual recriminations. It is unclear how often these types of episodes can be patched up without having a significant impact on bilateral relations.

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