Friday, 5 April 2013

How Turkey accepts an apology

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed to convince himself – and is doing his best to convince the entire Turkish population − that he has won a great psychological victory over Israel.

As a parting shot in his recent tour of the Middle East, President Obama persuaded his host, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to issue an apology for failures that occurred in the course of the Israeli military operation during the Mavi Marmara affair in May 2010, when nine Turkish citizens were killed in an attempt to run the blockade of Gaza. The careful wording was as far, politically and diplomatically, as Netanyahu was prepared to go. He made his phone call to Erdogan from the airstrip, while Obama waited to board Air Force One for his return flight to the US.

It is obvious that the President must also have exerted no little pressure on the Turkish prime minister to accept whatever it was Netanyahu was able to say by way of apology, and in addition to withdraw his threat of putting four Israeli military officials on trial in Ankara in absentia, provided Israel financially compensated the families of those who were killed.

They say that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Perhaps the darkest hour in Turkish-Israeli relations was Erdogan’s outburst in late-February declaring Zionism to be a “crime against humanity”, on a par with fascism. Admittedly, on seeing the general outrage that his remarks had caused, he hastened to soften their impact, but as Alon Liel observed in the Jerusalem Report, speaking for many observers at the time: “Erdogan crossed a red line no Israeli government can ignore. With this slander he has destroyed any hope of an Israeli apology.”

Lo and behold, in the very week that Liel’s prediction appeared in print, the apology was made and – it is presumed – accepted. The acceptance has to be presumed, because instead of any gracious acknowledgement of Netanyahu’s gesture, instead of extending a “thank you” or indicating pleasure in the fact that Netanyahu had made a considerable personal and diplomatic effort to heal relations between Israel and Turkey, Erdogan reacted by trumpeting the apology as a humiliation for Israel and a triumph for himself. Billboards in Ankara read: “Dear prime minister, we are grateful that you let our country experience this pride.”

No-one begrudges the Turkish people feeling pride, but one must ask: ‘pride in what?’ There is no cause for pride in having one’s arm twisted. It was Obama − working through his Secretary of State, John Kelly − who had masterminded three weeks of covert negotiation with the Turkish prime minister and his colleagues, to ensure that the apology, when issued by Netanyahu, was accepted, and that, as a quid pro quo for Israel paying compensation to the families of the Turkish citizens killed in the Mavi Marmara incident, Erdogan agreed to drop charges he had intended bringing against four Israeli officials involved in planning and executing the operation. In short, it is difficult to perceive any Turkish victory over Israel since it was not Erdogan who persuaded Netanyahu to act, but Obama.

The triumphalist posturing adopted by Erdogan since the apology does not augur well for future Turco-Israeli relations. It would have been easy for Erdogan to accept the apology graciously, to grasp the hand of friendship extended to him, to have declared that the episode marked a new beginning in relations between the two countries. The way Erdogan did react makes it seem highly unlikely that his rabid anti-Israel rhetoric will be much modified in the future. He is engaged in a power play – a bid to trump both Iran and Egypt, still racked by its Arab Spring revolution − to achieve regional hegemony, if not leadership of the Muslim world. Erdogan dare not be seen to draw too close to the perennial enemy, even if he wished to – doubtful in itself.

However, a more covert Turco-Israeli rapprochement might develop – growth, perhaps, in sales to Turkey of Israeli defense equipment; possibly exports of gas to or via Turkey from the vast reserves off Israel’s coast just starting to be exploited; maybe restoration of old trade and tourism links. However, even optimistic observers agree that nothing will happen quickly. The re-establishment of confidence and of contacts will take time and patience. Recent reports indicate that negotiating teams charged with restoring ties between Turkey and Israel are to due to begin meeting this week. The Turkish team will be led by Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, former Ambassador to Israel; the Israeli team by Joseph Ciechanover.

Meanwhile on 12 April an Israeli delegation will travel to Ankara to begin discussions on the extent of the financial compensation to be paid by Israel to the families of the Turkish citizens killed on board the Mavi Marmara. There is certainly a gap to be bridged here, if reports are to be believed. Turkey is said to be demanding that Israel pay $1 million per family of each activist killed, while Israel is currently offering each family $100,000 by way of compensation. Negotiations seem likely to be extensive.

Whether Netanyahu should have offered his apology in the first place, whether Erdogan should have responded to it as he did − these matters are now water under the bridge. The fact is that, even if extracted from both sides by American pressure, this unexpected political development is a fait accompli. What is needed now is for both Turkey and Israel to exploit it, taking account of their own interests. Do either have the will, desire or inclination to do so? Time will tell.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 April 2013:

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