Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turkey & Israel: Trouble Behind, Trouble Ahead?

Israel's Trade and Labor Minister, Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, just finished a three-day trip to Turkey, the first visit by a top Israeli politician since the downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations that followed the war in Gaza earlier this year. On the most basic level, Ben-Eliezer's visit was a success. He met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Libya during Ben-Eliezer's visit) and managed to avoid the fate of Israel's ambassador to Turkey, who on a recent tour of the country's Black Sea region was pelted with eggs and upbraided by every second-rate elected official he met with.

Following his meeting with Ben-Eliezer, FM Davutoglu said "the crisis is behind us," while the Israeli minister told reporters that his visit helped stop the "snowballing" deterioration in the two countries' relations. Still, I think further problems loom on the horizon for Ankara and Jerusalem. To a large extent, Turkey is now pegging its relations with Israel to the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, which might not bode well, at least in the short- (or even medium-) term. Milliyet columnist Sami Kohen took a look at this development in his column (in Turkish) yesterday, writing:
Turkey does not have any direct mutual problems with Israel.

At the same time though, the whole Palestinian situation with Gaza at the forefront is beginning to become a defining aspect of Turkish-Israeli relations. It seems that Ankara is starting to form this strong correlation when it comes to relations with Israel. It could be asked just how much of an effect this policy is really going to have on the Netanyahu administration’s rigid stance when it comes to Gaza and Palestinian matters in general. It appears that “Bibi” has absolutely no intent (despite pressure from Barack Obama) to change his stance on these matters. If re-activating Turkish-Israeli relations is now tied literally to developments on the Palestinian front, this will help neither bilateral relations nor the disputes between the Arabs and the Israelis.
(An interview in the Nov. 25 edition of Today's Zaman with Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's chief foreign policy advisor, gives more background on how Turkey is approaching Israel and the Palestinian issue. You can read it here.)

During his meeting with Ben-Eliezer, president Gul politely rebuffed an invitation to visit Israel, reportedly indicating that he wouldn't be able to do so until the situation with Palestinians improves. It seems that for now Ankara is pursuing a kind of "tough love" policy with Israel, telling Jerusalem that a certain amount of frost will cover relations as long as there is little movement on the Palestinian front. The corollary to this, of course, is that if the (already poor) state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinians starts to further deteriorate, Turkish-Israeli relations will find themselves once again being taken down with it.

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