It is not just a relief for President Barack Obama and good news for the US Congress, but a major development that means an open path back to basics, which will be a major game-changer for the region.
This can be said about the Israeli government’s apology for the Mavi Marmara tragedy and its promise of compensation: The world is rapidly changing. As Turkey has done, so will Israel. These “interesting” times do not reward those who are stuck in old ways of thinking.
Ever since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert let down Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan days before Operation Cast Lead, I have been one of those who maintained that Israeli politics has been dominated by erratic reasoning, reaching its peak with the bloody flotilla episode that severed relations between Turkey and Israel — two bumpy, nevertheless functioning democracies in the region.
As the period of frost between them showed, it left them as concerned neighbors, as the carnage (a word Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used at the side of Obama) escalated in Syria and as Iran both directly and through Iraq tries to widen the sectarian gap. At the far end, people watch with concern as Egypt helplessly tumbles into uncertainty, losing much of its diplomatic leverage for peacemaking with regard to Palestinians.
There are a large number of reasons for the regional logic that now prevails for both. The “cold bullying” between them has weakened the role of the US in the Middle East. Both for Netanyahu and Erdoğan, their interests with regard to the security dimensions of the Syrian quagmire clearly converge. A quick return to various forms of cooperation that will maintain the stability of the neighborhood is required.
It has also to do with the emerging dynamics and demands for change that puts pressure on both. Netanyahu said after meeting Obama that he is for a two-state solution, and Erdoğan seems determined to put an end to Turkey’s gangrenous Kurdish conflict.
If serious and successful, both governments can show that they can overcome their mistrust and differences, setting examples for the region — that it is only the format of democracies that can help adopt to the changing times. This is expected of them, and they should deliver — for Palestinians and Kurds.
One light but important aspect of the Israeli move is tourism. As the Haaretz daily reported, the opening of relations will mean an increase of Israeli tourists flocking to Turkish coasts and mountains.
Commercial ties have not been much damaged by the frost. Israel is still the seventh-largest trade partner of Turkey, and, as Haaretz, noted, “Most of the military supply contracts that Israeli companies had with Turkey were even fulfilled.”
Probably the most important dimension of the rapprochement concerns energy. As Michael Koplow, program director of the Israel Institute, wrote in Foreign Affairs: “Turkey has no natural resources of its own. Furthermore, Turkey is paying through the nose for both Russian and Iranian natural gas due to onerous price contracts. Israel, meanwhile, has just discovered two major natural gas basins, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, off its coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. … With Turkey’s economic growth slowing, Israel’s potential as a partner makes reconciliation more attractive now than at any point in recent years.”
But, before that, much damage repair and confidence building needs to be done. “Let us not rush it; we are still at a mental stage between the Davos incident and Mavi Marmara,” said a source close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. It may be an undue caution, yet if both leaders calculate Israel and Turkey will need each other much more than ever before, they have to change perceptions first.
Israeli politicians’ gravest mistake concerning the AKP and emerging civilian politics was Islamophobia. They must abandon that perception. The AKP is far more globalist and pragmatist than Islamist.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, must help the Turkish public overcome anti-Semitism, as he explained in Vienna and Copenhagen. He must make clear to the Turkish people that Israel, while obliged to stop the oppression of Palestinians once and for all, also has legitimate concerns of safety and terrorism, as he does at home.