Despite high intensity, Israel-Turkey spat could be over within months

Despite high intensity, Israel-Turkey spat could be over within months

Never mind the mutual humiliations and unprecedented diplomatic measures; neither side is interested in escalation

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israel’s new ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na'eh, hands his credentials to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday, December 5, 2016. (courtesy Turkish Presidency)
Israel’s new ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na'eh, hands his credentials to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday, December 5, 2016. (courtesy Turkish Presidency)

Despite the ongoing diplomatic tug-of-war between Turkey and Israel, which has included mutual recriminations, personal humiliations, and unprecedented diplomatic measures, bilateral relations could normalize within several months.

Absent a further escalation on the Gaza border, and if Israel doesn’t cross certain Turkish red lines, Ankara will not take additional steps against Israel and the two parties will return quietly to the status quo ante, several experts on Turkey-Israel ties said Thursday.

“The situation is tense, but as of right now, it doesn’t look like either of the two sides are eager to escalate the situation. No one wants a further downgrading of ties,” said Bar-Ilan University’s Efrat Aviv.

“The Palestinian issue is very volatile, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan sees himself as the defender of the Palestinian people and of Jerusalem’s [Muslim] holy sites,” she added. “But as long nothing very dramatic happens now, he will not cut relations with Israel.”

Both sides have so far refrained from entirely severing diplomatic ties, signaling their desire to leave the door open for a quiet normalization in the not-so-distant future, she posited. “It’s not going to happen today or tomorrow, but it will also not take years.”

A picture taken on May 14, 2018 from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza Strip shows Palestinian protestors gathering along the border fence with Israel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

This week’s spat began when Turkey condemned Israel’s response to Monday’s violent protests on the Gaza border.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said 62 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,700 more injured in clashes this week. The IDF said Tuesday that at least 24 of the dead were members of terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Those two terror groups subsequently acknowledged that 53 of their members were among the dead. Israel claims that Hamas is spurring the violence and using it as cover for attacks.

But Erdogan placed the blame for the Gaza deaths squarely on Israel, accusing it of being a “terrorist state” that commits “genocide.” Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and expelled Israel’s envoys to Ankara and Istanbul.

Israel responded in kind, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying Erdogan “well understands terrorism and slaughter” and should not preach to Israel about military ethics.

Israel expelled Turkey’s consul-general in Jerusalem, who represents Ankara to the Palestinians, while Turkey threatened to incriminate the Jewish state at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

In between, Turkey invited camera teams to film as Turkish airport officials subjected Israel’s departing ambassador, Eitan Na’eh, to intrusive security checks. Israel’s Foreign Ministry avenged the humiliation the next day by dressing down Turkey’s charge d’affair — but not before alerting the press, which rushed to capture on tape as the man underwent similar (though somewhat less intrusive) inspections.

An image shared by Yair Netanyahu on his Instagram account on May 16, 2018. (Screen capture)

Adding insult to injury, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, on Wednesday posted a picture of the Turkish flag with the words “Fuck Turkey” written on them on social media.

The prime minister’s aides said Yair was a private citizen and does not represent the Israeli government. His post, however, caused great anger in Turkey, where the national flag is revered more than in other countries, Aviv said.

Meanwhile, Erdogan met with a group of rabidly anti-Zionist Jews from the Neturei Karta fringe group, who told him about their hope for the speedy dismantling of the State of Israel.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosts representatives of the rabidly anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta in London, May 15, 2018. (Twitter)

As they witnessed this childish tit-for-tat, some observers of Israel-Turkey relations could not help but be reminded of an infamous episode in early 2010, when then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon summoned Ankara’s ambassador to Jerusalem for a rebuke over an anti-Israel television show broadcast in Turkey — and sat the diplomat on a lower chair.

Danny Ayalon (left) with Turkey's ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, during a meeting in 2010. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Danny Ayalon (left) with Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, in 2010. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Ayalon later apologized for the televised humiliation of the Turkish diplomat.

Turkey-Israel relations actually started off on a good foot: In 1949, Ankara became the first Muslim-majority country to recognize the nascent State of Israel. Diplomatic ties between the countries were never cut, though they weathered two severe crises: In 1980, Turkey downgraded ties after Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem. It took 12 years before the relations were fully restored.

And in September 2011, in the aftermath of IDF’s raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara the year before, during which nine Turks were killed, Ankara once again downgraded ties and suspended military cooperation with Jerusalem.

Erdogan had three conditions for restoring ties: an apology from Israel, financial compensation for the victims’ families and a lifting Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza strip. The blockade was not lifted, but after arduous negotiations, Israel and Turkey inked a reconciliation deal in June 2016.

Footage taken from Mavi Marmara security cameras, showing the activists onboard as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Footage from the Mavi Marmara security cameras shows the activists on board as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

While the current crisis has already reached unprecedented territory — Israel never before kicked out Turkey’s consul in Jerusalem, and Turkey never before kicked out Israel’s consul in Istanbul — and could still spiral out of control, experts said neither side is actually interested in further escalation.

In fact, the Turkish and Israeli ambassadors can expect to return to work within several months, if either side refrains from further provocations that could deepen the crisis, said Nimrod Goren, an expert on Turkey and the chairman of Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Eitan Na’eh (L) holds his luggage at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on May 16, 2018, as he prepares to leave Turkey. (AFP Photo/DHA/Dogan News Agency)

While it took five years to repair the damage caused by the Mavi Marmara affair, the current spat is of an entirely different order of magnitude, he argued.

“The Marmara issue involved a direct violent clash between the two countries in which Turkish nationals were killed, and Turkey made specific demands of Israel. This time, there are no concrete demands. Turkey’s actions were made in protest of things that already happened,” Goren said.

On the other hand, warned Alon Liel, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and Israeli ambassador in Ankara, Turkey has certain red lines that, if crossed, would lead to a dramatic and immediate deterioration in bilateral ties.

In the wake of Erdogan’s incendiary comments and the shabby treatment of Israel’s diplomats, some senior Israeli politicians — including cabinet ministers — have called for Israel to formally recognize the Armenian genocide. Others have urged Jerusalem to recognize Kurdish independence.

“These are absolute red lines for Turkey,” said Liel, who served in Ankara in the early 1980s. “If we don’t get too close to these red lines, and the riots in Gaza don’t intensify again, the current crisis can be overcome in a matter of months.”

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