For most of the past decade, Turkey has been a pivotal regional ally of Israel as well as a mediator with neighboring Arab states. It positioned itself as a chief power broker in the region allied with the West, Israel and Arab countries. During this time, Europe and the United States continually encouraged Turkey to expand its influence in the region and become a familiar voice for democracy and tolerance. Epitomizing Turkey’s western allegiances, in 2005 the European Union began accession negotiations with Turkey, a critical step towards full membership.
However, the past two years have witnessed a disheartening diversion from the blossoming relationship between Turkey and Israel and, more broadly, with Europe and the United States. Two significant events illustrate the recent strain to Turkish-Israeli relations. First, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan delivered a face-to-face scolding to Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009. While this behavior is hardly atypical for Erdoğan, such a direct public castigation is certainly a rarity on the international stage. Second, Israeli soldiers raided the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010 after the ship attempted to run the Gaza blockade, an incident which resulted in the death of nine Turks. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel and continues to demand formal apology from the Israeli government.
Additionally, the Turkish-Brazilian effort to facilitate a nuclear swap with Iran last year and Turkey’s condemnation of this April’s IDF strikes in Gaza as “excessive and disproportionate” have exasperated an already deteriorating relationship, one that is crucial to the security interests of Europe and the United States.
Recently, the United States has launched a diplomatic offensive to restore Turkish-Israeli relations to pre-2009 levels. On her most recent trip to the Turkey last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to stress that the United States considers Turkish-Israeli rapprochement a primary concern and of great regional significance. Likewise, during Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s visit to Washington, Obama administration officials expressed similar sentiments, emphasizing an apology for Mavi Marmara could make significant inroads in soothing the current discord.
Restoring positive relations between Turkey and Israel is about more than just realizing the dividends of peace in the Middle East, albeit important. The revolutions of the Arab Spring have clarified Turkey’s strategic importance to the United States and Europe. The United States has long enjoyed its alliance with Turkey. As a democratic nation with a majority Muslim population, it is well positioned to affect positive change in a region reluctant to accept Western pressures.
Likewise, the benefits of a strategic relationship with the West, including Israel, have become more apparent to Turkey. In the absence of Turkey, Israel has reached out to other European allies, specifically Greece and Cyprus. Such relationships are troubling in the eyes of the Turks due to ongoing conflicts with those neighboring nations. Moreover, Turkey’s Eastern allies have also come under much international scrutiny given the burgeoning rebellion in Syria and the increasing isolation of Iran. Turkey has gone so far as to join the international chorus criticizing Syria by raising in a press release “suspicions regarding the intentions and sincerity of the Syrian administration to resolve the issue through peaceful methods.”
All in all, the recent events in the Middle East provide a golden opportunity for Turkey to realign itself with the United States and Europe. This must begin with Turkish-Israeli reconciliation with the hope of returning the relationship to its former glory. Given the popular support Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Erdoğan enjoy within their respective nations, there are no better leaders to initiate such a rapprochement. And given the unfolding events in Syria and the Middle East, there is no better nor more critical a time for such a rapprochement to occur.
James is a policy consultant and currently resides in Washington, DC. He advises top policymakers on issues of international relations.