What Israel’s apology does and does not mean for a new era of Turkish-Israeli relations.
By Leor Sapir
Apologies have a paradoxical dynamic. When you are expecting one, you present yourself as the victim while simultaneously tormenting your offender by holding the moral high ground. When you are the one making the apology, you openly lament the shame of admitting your offense, while secretly reveling in restoring the moral balance between yourself and the offended party. An apology, to follow Nietzsche’s formula, can be the most fearful form of revenge, for once it is accepted, the once-victim can make no further appeal.
Diplomacy is at least as multilayered as apologies are, and the diplomacy of apologies all the more so. This is a precaution we should keep in mind when considering Netanyahu’s recent apology to Erdogan over Israel’s use of lethal force against Turkish “activists” aboard the 2010 Gaza-bound flotilla.
While it is tempting to conclude that Turkey’s “Eastward turn” has come with an open policy of aggression toward Israel, this would be mistaken. As pundits have sufficiently pointed out, the two countries still share powerful common interests in the region. One is curbing Iran’s bid for regional influence, which, given Erdogan’s and the Justice and Development (AK) Party’s neo-Ottoman aspirations to restore Turkish prominence and prestige in the Middle East, places Tehran on a direct collision course with Ankara. Iran, not Israel, is Turkey’s major competition. Consequently, both Turkey and Israel have a strong interest in resolving the Syrian civil war and in supporting a Sunni government not aligned with or answerable to Iran. Timing is of the essence for both countries, too. Turkey does not want an influx of refugees (although it already has allowed refugee camps to be set up on the Turkish side of the border), and especially not Kurdish ones. Israel fears that Assad’s fiercely loyal Republican Guard might ultimately lose control of the country’s chemical weapon stockpiles, and that these weapons might end up in the hands of Hezbollah. An IAF airstrike on a convey suspected of transporting chemical weapons demonstrates just how much attention is paid in Jerusalem to the flow of events in Syria.
Some tend to forget that the Gaza flotilla was not an isolated incident. It followed on the heels of the public humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Israel, which itself was a reaction to a rise of anti-Semitic television programs in Turkey. Nonetheless, despite all the sensational brouhaha of public diplomacy in recent years, Turkey and Israel have maintained strong economic ties, and with each nation’s vibrant civil society, attitudes on both sides of the Mediterranean have remained mixed.
But why now? Obviously, the timing could not have been more fortuitous for Obama, who wanted to return home from his first visit to Israel with a concrete accomplishment. Given the administration’s less-than-perfect Middle East policy (which, no doubt, was hampered from the start by the residue of Bush’s presidency and by the outbreak of the Arab Spring), Obama needed a “victory,” even if only a symbolic one.
But the more revealing reason has to do with another feature the leaders of democratic Israel and Turkey have in common: elections. A Turkish high court recently ruled that the country’s president could stand for re-election after concluding his or her initial term. The backdrop to this is a national debate on whether the president, rather than the prime minister (currently Erdogan) should be the highest elected office. There is talk that Erdogan is eyeing the post, so it should not come as a huge surprise that the AK Party leader needs proof of his resolution to pursue a neo-Ottoman platform. An apology issued by the only serious regional superpower could do wonders to this end.
As for Netanyahu’s timing, the Obama visit was likely only a tangential consideration (Netanyahu did, after all, need to make a positive gesture toward the American president). The most relevant motivation was, once again, elections. Netanyahu – who champions Israeli power projection as a staple of his foreign policy – simply could not afford to apologize publicly before elections were concluded. This would have invited any and all hawks to outflank him on the right at no cost to them. There is little doubt that Netanyahu has recognized Israel’s confluence of interests with Turkey on the matter of Syria ever since the outbreak of the civil war, and there is little doubt that he acknowledges Turkey’s desire to keep Iran at bay. But domestic politics took their toll, and Netanyahu was forced to put reconciliation with Turkey on hold.
Turkey sees Israel as a strategic partner behind closed doors. But in the open, Erdogan’s prestige (and that of his country, according to AKP doctrine) depends on Turkey championing the Palestinian cause. This allows Turkey to win over hearts and minds on the Arab street, where centuries of Ottoman rule have left a bitter distaste for the Turks. Publicly siding with the Palestinians provides Erdogan the perfect opportunity to score sentimental points. Erdogan knows that Israel, being a status-quo power, will not confront Turkey militarily unless its vital interests are under immediate threat. So Erdogan can afford to play a double game with Israel, stacking up symbolic victories through public acts of humiliation (like the flotilla), while secretly relying on and thanking God for Israeli realpolitik.
In a sense, Netanyahu’s apology can grant Erdogan political maneuverability at home. If the Turkish PM wants to see his neo-Ottoman ambitions come to fruition, he must be willing to mediate any prospective negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Doing so would also render Ankara the “go to” power for America’s Middle East policy, turning Erdogan into a valuable partner for the West. Now that Netanyahu’s government has issued an apology, Erdogan can play the role of mediator – provided, of course, that there is a minimum amount of political will for negotiations to be found in Israel and Palestine. Not surprisingly, immediately after the apology Erdogan scheduled a visit to Gaza, where he is surely to be received with a hero’s welcome. Israel, for its part, should not fear the spectacle of an Erdoganian Triumph in Gaza. Even under the Muslim-conservative AK Party, Turkey recognizes Israel’s right to exist (a fact implied in the very acceptance of Netanyahu’s apology), and is more akin to Abbas’ stance on Jewish statehood than to Hamas’.
Israelis must keep in mind that Erdogan’s government is unlikely to desist from its openly insulting rhetoric against the Jewish state. Rather, Israelis should recognize the value of a Muslim nation with interests in the region that overlap with their own. Turkey could and probably will become a model in the Muslim world for cold, self-interested engagement with Israel based on détente. But to do so, Erdogan will nonetheless have to exercise self-restraint and remember that Israelis – like any proud people – only have so much patience.
Lastly, the apology is a nail in the coffin of the growing theory of Netanyahu as a Messianic Zionist, whose idealism will lead Israel and the Middle East down an even more dangerous path than it’s already on. Netanyahu has shown these critics that he can, and does, prefer cold calculation – which is predictable and hence reliable as far as other powers are concerned – to fantastic Zionist dreams.
Whether Netanyahu’s apology will be the first step en route to a more constructive relationship with Turkey is an open question. As they say in Turkey, bakalim. We shall see.
Leor Sapir is a visiting lecturer at the National Law School of India University.
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