Israel and Turkey find magical land where (almost) everyone’s a winner

While local politicians belly-ache, Netanyahu got just about everything he needed out of the normalization deal, and allowed Erdogan to save face. It’s called diplomacy

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome for a meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on June 27, 2016. (GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome for a meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on June 27, 2016. (GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

The Israeli-Turkish reconciliation deal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday in Rome is being criticized by politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum. That’s probably a good sign.

Unsurprisingly, opposition leader Isaac Herzog slammed the deal, hammering Netanyahu for agreeing to pay $20 million in compensation for the families of the Turkish victims of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. Such a deal is “unfathomable,” Herzog wrote on his Facebook page.

“Let all Jewish mothers know that the right wing will pay compensation to those who attack their sons,” he added.

Gideon Sa’ar — who was a government minister at the time when Netanyahu apologized to Turkey for “operational errors” during the Marmara raid — came out swinging against the deal. He called it “a national humiliation,” a case of “paying the aggressor,” and said it “opens the door to the next capitulation to terrorism” because Hamas would now make new demands for the release of its terrorists from Israeli jails.

But anyone with even the faintest familiarity with Israeli politics knows that these two men would likely have supported the deal had they had been in the government today.

Likewise, Netanyahu would doubtless have opposed it had he been sitting in the opposition.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech at a meeting of local government heads at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on March 16, 2016. (Adem Altan/AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on March 16, 2016. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Given the acerbic nature of Israeli politics, the fact that politicians on both the left and the right reject the deal says less about its true merits than about the speakers’ own biases. In Turkey as well, the deal was met with some domestic criticism that accused Ankara of not achieving enough.

A sober look at the facts reveals that there are no big winners or losers. Both sides made significant concessions to clinch a deal.

Israel had already apologized over the deaths of 10 Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara Gaza-blockade busting ship, and had agreed to pay compensation, fulfilling two of Turkey’s three demands for the full restoration of ties.

‘This arrangement will be criticized in Jerusalem and in Ankara, but eventually it serves the interests of both countries, and that’s why it will be signed. This is called diplomacy’

Ankara’s final demand was the lifting of Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip — the very issue leading Turkey to support 2010’s Mavi Marmara-led flotilla in the first place.

The requirement of lifting the Gaza blockade was declared nonnegotiable by Turkish leaders, who until now refused to back down. For Jerusalem, this demand was a nonstarter, simply because of the concern that free access to the Hamas-ruled coastal strip would spell an immediate danger for Israel’s security.

The Mavi Marmara is seen of the coast of Israel in May 2010 (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/FLASH90)
The Mavi Marmara is seen off the coast of Israel in May 2010 (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/FLASH90)

Another issue of contention was Turkey’s hosting of leaders from the Hamas terror group. Jerusalem demanded Ankara kick them out, but Erdogan — who has excellent ties with the organization — adamantly refused.

The deal Netanyahu and Turkish counterpart, Binali Yıldırım, announced nearly simultaneously — the former in Rome, the latter in Ankara — allows both sides to save face.

Ankara celebrates having “lifted” the blockade of Gaza, because the agreement allows it to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of the Strip, including building a power station and desalination plant there.

“To this end, our first ship loaded with over 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid will leave for Israel’s Ashdod port on Friday,” Yıldırım announced.

But Jerusalem was quick to point out it that it refused to compromise on the naval blockade.

“It will remain as it is,” Netanyahu said.

The Turks’ efforts to help ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza are clearly in Israel’s interest, the prime minister added, pointing out that Israel had at no stage refused to let Turkey provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza as long as the blockade remained intact.

This is perhaps the agreement’s biggest accomplishment. It allows Ankara to announce that it is helping build Gaza, but keeps entirely in place the policy Israel has set up to try to prevent arms from entering the Strip.

Ankara further celebrated the $20 million Israel will pay to the families of the Marmara victims. Jerusalem, in turn, emphasizes that the sum will only be transferred once the Turkish parliament passes legislation providing legal cover for Israeli soldiers.

Ankara notes that it rejected the Israeli demand to oust Hamas; Jerusalem prides itself in having persuaded the Turks to commit themselves to preventing terror and any other military aggression against Israel emanating from its territory, including financing of terror.

The families of two Israeli soldiers whose bodies are held by Hamas, and of two Israeli civilians held in Gaza, unsurprisingly accused the prime minister of selling them out. But as Netanyahu noted, Turkey doesn’t rule Gaza. Hamas does. And the Turkish president, he noted, has now promised to help return Israeli soldiers and captives from Gaza.

‘The deal is hard to stomach, but countries make such agreements’

Neither Israel nor Turkey got everything they wanted, but each got enough to declare themselves the winner of this half-decade long standoff. This arrangement will be criticized in Jerusalem and in Ankara, but ultimately it serves the interests of both countries, and that’s why it will be signed. It’s called diplomacy.

As Israel’s ambassador packs his or her bags for Ankara, some may wonder whether Israel needs any of this at all. Efrat Aviv, a Turkey expert at Bar-Ilan University, told this reporter a few months ago that Erdogan needs Israel more than Israel needs Erdogan, and that it is not in Jerusalem’s best strategic interest to make peace with Turkey at this point.

“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?” she asked.

No one is under the illusion that bilateral relations are about to enter a new golden age. “I’m not going into a honeymoon. And I’m not presenting this agreement through rose-tinted glasses. But this agreement strengthens Israel,” Netanyahu said Monday.

But besides the geopolitical and strategic implications of a détente with Turkey, Netanyahu emphasized the potentially enormous economic gains to be had, chief among them the sale of natural gas to European markets via Turkey and to Turkey itself. “This issue could not have gone forward without the deal, and now we will advance it,” he said. “This will boost Israel’s economy with vast capital. This is a major strategic boost.”

Yıldırım, asked about the gas deal, sounded less enthusiastic, but he did not deny that Ankara is interested in cooperating with Israel on that matter. “We are talking about normalization of relations. Once the normalization starts it will be up to two countries to decide to what extent they want to cooperate and on what issues,” he said.

When and how the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation deal will bear economic fruit remains to be seen. But diplomatically, it is a real, tangible achievement for Netanyahu.

The region is in the midst of “upheaval,” the prime minister said, and Israel needs all the allies it can get — in full coordination with its key ally, he stressed, the United States.

MK Yair Lapid, who has made a point recently in slamming the government’s foreign policy in every possible forum, could not bring himself to criticize the détente with Turkey. “The deal is hard to stomach, but countries make such agreements,” he said. “There is what we all feel, and then there is the national security interest, and the national security interest comes first.”

And even Tzipi Livni, opposition Zionist Union MK, former foreign minister and perennial Netanyahu critic, recognized the wisdom of the deal. She would have accepted these terms, Livni said, had she been in government.

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