by Katelyn Haas
After six years of tense relations and negotiating, Israel and Turkey have finalized a deal to end the diplomatic rift that arose when activists carrying humanitarian aid supplies from Turkey attempted to break through the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. These activists were confronted by Israeli commandos, resulting in the death of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American passenger. In the aftermath, diplomatic ties were all but severed.
We spoke with Dan Arbell, nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and former deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC, about the future of the Israel-Turkey relationship.
How did the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident spark such a dramatic shift in relations between Turkey and Israel?
Leading up to the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey and Israel were very close allies with a strategic partnership that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s, with close military, diplomatic and economic cooperation. It was a unique relationship between the one and only Jewish state and one of the largest non-Arab Muslim states in the world. The tension began as a result of Israel’s policy on the Palestinian issue—mainly regarding the Gaza operation known as “Cast Lead.” In the case of the Mavi Marmara event, a flotilla, a group of boats carrying humanitarian assistance from Turkey and other parts of Europe to Gaza, was intercepted at sea by Israeli commando units. They were attacked and in response they opened fire, which resulted in the killing of eight Turks and one Turkish-American citizen. This enraged the Turkish government.
Since then, how have relations between the two countries progressed?
This went on for a few years. Ambassadors were called back from capitals; the political relationships were pretty much suspended. Economic ties continued, but there was a very limited relationship until negotiations began around 2012, and then picked up again when Israel apologized for the Mavi Marmara incident in March 2013. There was never a right time for the Turkish government because of municipal and national elections.
And that conflicted with restoring relations?
What conflicted was the fact that Erdoğan, the then-prime minister and today’s president of Turkey, was seeking a leadership role in the Muslim and Arab world. He felt that a close relationship with Israel was not something that helped him.
Keep in mind, this was in the midst of the Arab Spring. Egypt and other countries had turmoil and instability, and Erdoğan capitalized on that, becoming a role model for these Arab regimes. It did not seem appropriate, in his view, to have a close relationship with Israel at that sensitive time when he’s trying to become a role model for these regimes, who were mainly not pro-Israel.
So what motivated a reconciliation?
There was a growing realization on both sides that while relations cannot go back to what it was in the 1990s—due to changes in regional dynamics and in each country’s political arena—in the big picture, strategically, it would be mutually beneficial to mend fences and normalize the relationship.
The Syrian crisis has a big impact on both Turkey and Israel, so the feeling was that they needed to coordinate and share intelligence, for their own benefit. There is also the thinking that both countries were, despite having relations with many countries in the region, feeling somewhat isolated. Turkey had many problems with its neighbors, Israel had problems with its neighbors, and so I think both countries felt that this would allow them to break out of isolation. In the economic sphere, during the years of crisis, that aspect kept the relationship afloat.
One of the conditions of the deal is Turkey’s newly allowed limited access through the naval blockade of Gaza. What will this look like in practice?
Turkey’s demand from Israel to lift the blockade has not been accepted by Israel, and Israel is not in any way lifting the blockade. Still, Israel will allow Turkey to go through the port in order to get to Gaza and will allow greater Turkish presence in Gaza. Turkey wants to set up a hospital there. Israel’s not going to oppose that. There’s going to be increased Turkish assistance, increased presence, but this will all be done in coordination with or under the supervision of Israel.
Will one country benefit more than the other?
For many years, five out of the six years of the stalemate, Israel wanted Turkey, but Turkey was reluctant. In recent months, it was more Turkey that wanted it than Israel. It’s never equal, but both countries thought strategically this would benefit them and both wanted it for different reasons. At different points at different times, you have one side wanting it more than the other, until they eventually agree.
Why is it so important for Turkey and Israel to coexist and cooperate?
Natural gas, economic issues, breaking out of isolation; in terms of the regional dynamic, it’s a good tribute to moral stability. At the end of the day, neither one has the luxury to not have a relationship.
What are the broader geopolitical implications, particularly for the United States?
The U.S. has been working on this for some time, encouraging parties to move forward. These two countries are both close allies of the United States, and for six years there’s been sort of a disconnect. The Turkey-Israel angle wasn’t functioning. Now that the triangle is whole again, you actually have a U.S., Turkey and Israel cooperation, collaboration and coordination on many issues. It gives a boost to U.S. strategic interest in the Middle East region.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.