Friday, August 6, 2010

Turkey and Israel, By the Numbers

The New York Times' Dan Bilefsky has a piece out looking at how on the commercial front its been business as usual between Israel and Turkey, despite the post-Mavi Marmara incident tensions. The article paints a fairly rosy picture of trade-driven pragmatism trumping nationalist sentiment.

I recently had a chance to speak with a major Turkish businessman who has been active in trade with Israel and got a less positive sense of things. Private sector dealings are perhaps not as affected right now, but he said that many Israeli companies he spoke with were deeply worried about being shut out of government tenders in Turkey and losing access to local financing for projects. Tourism figures, meanwhile, tell a very troubling story: this past June, only 2,605 Israelis visited Turkey, compared to 27,289 the year before (a figure which was already lower than previous years, since Israeli tourism to Turkey started dropping after the early 2009 Gaza war and the subsequent harsh Turkish response). There was a 44 percent drop in Israeli tourism to Turkey between 2008 and 2009 and one can only imagine how low 2010's figures will be.

On the other hand, Turkey and Israel appear to be making furtive moves towards restoring some semblance of normalcy in their relationship. The three Turkish ships involved in the flotilla incident, including the Mavi Marmara, have been released by the Israeli government and are currently being towed back to a port on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Israel has also agreed to participate in a United Nations inquiry into the flotilla incident, although the committee seems designed less to get to the bottom of the affair and more as a way of offering both Turkey and Israel a chance to step back from the maximalist positions they have taken on the issue.

In general, I get the sense that Ankara is still searching for a workable game in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident. Threats and harsh rhetoric against Israel have not worked, and the whole affair (combined with Turkey's "no" vote in the Security Council on Iran sanctions) has worked to strain relations with Washington. In many ways, Turkey makes me think of a stylishly-playing soccer/football team whose game falls apart upon encountering a rival with a hard-nosed and rough-playing defense.

Analyst Semih Idiz takes a look at this in today's Hurriyet Daily News, in a column entitled "Govt's Mavi Marmara Frustration Deepens." The column can be found here.

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