Will Saturday’s devastating terror attack in Istanbul lead to an improvement in bilateral ties between Ankara and Jerusalem?
Those looking for a silver lining to the tragic event in which three Israeli civilians (and an Iranian) were killed can point to the smooth cooperation and the sympathetic messages exchanged by officials from both countries. But while several signals indicate that some sort of detente is in the offing, experts on Israel-Turkey ties warn that a full-fledged reconciliation might still not be around the corner.
The coordination between Israeli and Turkish officials dealing with the immediate aftermath of the attack on Istanbul’s pedestrian Istiklal avenue was excellent, according to people on the ground.
“The Health Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office, the hospitals — even the funeral homes were amazing,” said diplomat Shira Ben Tzion, who was in charge of Israel’s Istanbul consulate at the time of the attack. “We are used to hostility on the streets,” she told Yedioth Ahronoth, “but in this case, from the moment we said we’re from the Israeli Consulate, they embraced us straight away and treated us nicely.”
Even on a much higher level, Saturday’s attack seemed to bring the two sides closer together. On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a letter of condolence from his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu, a man not usually know for his high regard for Israel’s current political leadership.
“Today’s attack in Istanbul has shown us once again that the international community as a whole should act in a resolute manner against the ignoble objectives of terrorist organizations,” Davutoğlu wrote. “I would like to convey my condolences to the families of the Israeli citizens who lost their lives in the heinous attack which happened in Istanbul and to the people of Israel, and wish a speedy recovery to the wounded.”
Davutoğlu’s missive came less than one week after Netanyahu condemned a large-scale terror attack in Ankara, expressing “solidarity with the Turkish people in the war against terrorism.” That statement was newsworthy because Netanyahu had refrained from speaking out on previous attacks rocking Turkish cities, reportedly due to his anger at Ankara’s refusal to condemn the wave of terror currently rocking Israel.
On Saturday night, in another gesture unprecedented in recent years, Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold aborted a trip to Washington (where he was supposed to participate in the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC) and instead made his way to Istanbul. In Turkey, he was set to meet with local politicians and members of the city’s Jewish community and is rumored to be slated to powwow with his current counterpart and former foreign minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu.
Gold’s arrival, on Sunday afternoon, marked the highest-level visit to Turkey from an Israeli official since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, which had sent bilateral ties into the abyss.
When İrem Aktaş, a member of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party, tweeted on Saturday that she wished for the death of the Israelis wounded in the attack, the party quickly initiated disciplinary proceedings against her.
“These are all things that we haven’t seen before in bilateral relations,” said Nimrod Goren, a Turkey expert at Hebrew University. “Look for example at Davutoğlu’s letter to Netanyahu. It represents some sort of direct communication, if not verbal, between the two leaders, and that is something we haven’t seen in a long time.”
This, together with Gold’s visit and the efficient cooperation by the authorities on the ground, are clear signs that “the diplomatic mechanism is working,” said Goren, who also heads Mitvim — The Israeli Institute Regional Foreign Policies.
“The level of cooperation, on a working level but also on a diplomatic level, is more intense that it had been in the past. And apparently it’s going quite well; so far we’ve heard no complaints from one side about the other.”
That fact that Aktaş’ hateful tweet was quickly and forcefully rejected by higher-ups in Erdoğan’s party indicates that verbal attacks against Israel are being delegitimized in today’s Turkey, Goren added. “All of these developments together form a picture showing open lines of communication and that Turkey is trying to project a better atmosphere,” he said.
And yet, this cautious rapprochement by no means guarantees that Jerusalem and Ankara will soon finalize a reconciliation agreement and fully normalize diplomatic ties, he believes. “There are concrete disagreements before it can be signed, and they are not removed by the most recent events. But what this development does achieve is creating a more relaxed atmosphere to conduct these negotiations in.”
Addressing reporters in the Foreign Ministry’s situation room Saturday night, Netanyahu reiterated that Israel is constantly trying to reach an agreement that will lead to normalization of ties with the Turks. “This matter is being delayed not because of frivolous reasons,” he said, “but because of fundamental issues about which we are trying to reach an understanding with them. There was a certain progress, and I hope that it will continue.”
Netanyahu is referring to Gaza — Ankara requests Israel lift its naval blockade of the Strip, which Israel opposes adamantly — as well as Jerusalem’s concern over senior Hamas leaders based in Turkey. Israel demands Turkey prevent any Hamas activity from its territory as a precondition to normalization. In addition, some important players in the region — Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Russia — are skeptical over an Israeli detente with Ankara.
Indeed, an overly hurried reconciliation might not necessarily be in Israel’s best interest, argued Efrat Aviv, a Turkey expert at Bar-Ilan University.
It is true that the events of the last few days testify to an increased closeness between Ankara and Jerusalem, she said. “But,” she added, “I wonder if we really need this right now, a final reconciliation agreement.”
‘The way things are today, it is not in Israel’s strategic interest to rush to fix ties with Turkey’
During a recent visit to Turkey, Israeli diplomats told her that the status quo is actually not so bad. Trade relations are good, she explained, tourism is up, and Israel is participating in cultural festivals in Turkey and generally has little to complain about. “Why do we need to pay the price and give in to Turkey’s demands to improve ties, given the country’s current volatile state?”
Israel did well to apologize for the Marmara incident, when IDF troops boarded a Gaza-bound aid ship and, when attacked, killed nine Turkish citizens, and to pledge to pay reparations to the families of the deceased, she said.
“We needed to do that because we’re a moral country. But I suggest not rushing into signing a reconciliation agreement. Maybe it’s not nice to take advantage of another country’s weak situation, but we need to look out for our national interests. Turkey is struggling with terrorism and we could help them. Turkey thus needs us more than we need them. The way things are today, it is not in Israel’s strategic interest to rush to fix ties with Turkey.”
While Erdoğan is keenly interested in restoring ties with Israel, Aviv continued, he is giving Israel few reasons to believe he is sincere about true reconciliation. “If tomorrow there’s another war with Hamas, will he again say that we’re worse than Hitler? Why do we rush to normalize relations with a country that supports Hamas, promotes anti-Semitism and terrorism?”
Even if Jerusalem and Ankara were to sign an agreement in the near future, “there won’t be a honeymoon” as long as an unreformed Erdoğan is in power, Aviv ventured. “There is a lack of trust here, and that is not going away so fast.”
Eventually, she allowed, restoring full diplomatic ties is desirable. “But let us take some time. Let’s build up bilateral relations slowly. Let them prove that they are really interested in reconciliation. Let’s first see a real change in their behavior.”