Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixing One Leak, Springing Another

While reporting for my recent Eurasianet story about the current strained state of Turkey-U.S. relations, one Washington analyst told me he believes that the tension between Turkey and Israel has now seeped into the relationship between Ankara and Washington.

Well, now it appears that the Turkish-Israeli tensions has also seeped into Israel's internal politics. The first attempt at holding a high-level gathering between Turkish and Israeli officials since last month's Gaza flotilla raid -- a (no longer) secret meeting in Brussels yesterday between the Turkish Foreign Minister and Israel's Minister of Trade -- has led to controversy in Israel, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman loudly complaining that he was cut out of the loop. More on the details here and here, plus some good analysis by Judah Grunstein here.

A few thoughts about this latest development on the Turkey-Israel front. One is that, among the many other things that it has brought into sharp relief, the Mavi Marmara incident has also made clear what a rickety contraption the Netanyahu government is. At a time of deep crisis with what used to be one of its most important allies, Israel not only can't utilize its Foreign Minister for problem solving, but actually has to keep him and his ministry in the dark about what it's doing to fix the problem. Officials in Ankara have previously said that they don't believe they can work with this current Israeli administration, and it's hard to see how this latest development will give them more confidence in Bibi and company.

Two, although the meeting in Brussels was a positive step, the fact remains that there is no serious high-level contact between Turkey and Israel. This was already true before the flotilla incident (and was likely one of the main factors that contributed to the tragedy that ensued) and has only gotten worse since. Before the incident, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who serves as a stand-in foreign minister in situations where Lieberman is persona non grata, had a good rapport with the Turks. Post incident, the Turkey portfolio is now in the hands of Minister of Trade Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who also has a good rapport with Ankara but is not the diplomatic heavyweight that the current crisis requires.

Finally, the "secret" meeting in Brussels is an indication of really just how fragile the Turkish-Israeli relationship is right now. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the other day again offered up Turkey as a mediator between Syria and Israel, but the truth is that it's looking more and more like it's Turkey and Israel that could use some mediation help. We've gone from Turkey holding secret talks between Israel and Syria to Turkey and Israel being reduced to holding secret talks between themselves. Not good.

The road forward, meanwhile, looks problematic. Turkey had previously pegged any improvement in its relations with Israel to an improvement in the Gaza situation. Post flotilla, Turkey is now conditioning any normalization in the relations on Israel also making an official apology, compensating the families of the victims and allowing for an international inquiry. As one friend put it here, it's gone from Gaza to Gaza "plus on your knees." Hard to see Israel meeting all of those conditions.

A Turkish official told me that Ankara has made clear to Israel that there's a defined "road map" for normalizing relations. Considering the success that other recent "road maps" have had in the region, improving Turkish-Israeli relations could be a lengthy process.

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