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Israel Apologizes to Turks with a Push from Obama, but Why Now?

Holding Turkish and Palestinian flags, people cheer as the Mavi Marmara returns to İstanbul, December 27, 2010.

On March 22, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Erdoḡan over the killing of Turkish volunteers on the ship Mavi Marmara, who were involved in supplying humanitarian aid to Gaza on May 31, 2010. Among the volunteers who were killed, there was also a U.S. citizen, Furkan Dogan (19).

Diplomatic relations between the two countries, following the incident, has been strained and limited.

The apology was timed with the President Obama’s recent visit to Israel and had been planned months before the President’s visit. Just prior to Obama’s flight to Jordan, President Obama called up Erdoḡan and then put Netanyahu on the phone. The conversation lasted for about thirty minutes.

The apology from Netanyahu consisted of an agreement to normalize relationships, offering compensation to the families of the victims and ease in restrictions for access to Gaza. Turkey also conceded to drop the law suits against the Israeli soldiers that killed the volunteers.

One would think from most media sources that this was a ‘play nice’ plea from Obama. However, this was  no simple apology. Obama’s visit to Israel and Jordan were not merely to make a good will visit to allies, but a set-up to align for possible military action in the area concerning Syria and Iran.

The “peace in the Middle East” and general positive talk while Obama was in Israel was well meant, but it was over-shadowed by the gathering storms in the area which were of primary security concerns to Turkey, Israel and Jordan. The apology and reconciliation was essential for regional cooperation among the top three of U.S. allies in the area: Turkey, Israel and Jordan.

The history of Turkey and Israel is a deep seated one. Turkey and Israel are staunch U.S. allies and are relatively stable democratic nations in the evolving aftermath of the Arab Spring. There is a tradition of close cooperation between all three countries.

Turkey was one of the first nations to recognize Israel after its establishment as a nation. In the past, they have had joint military exercises and shared intelligence. The links of Turkey to the Jews date back for centuries. Turkey had a major Jewish population during the time of the Ottoman Empire. There is still a significant population in Istanbul and other major Turkish cities, but it has declined due to Turkish Jews’ immigration to Israel.

During World War II, the Republic of Turkey was neutral and allowed Jews to transit to Palestine. There was also an active role by many prominent Turks to rescue Jews from Nazi controlled Europe. Prior to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire and the life in the region was relatively peaceful.

However, the atmosphere between Turkey and Israel was tense prior to the Mavi Marmara incident. The moderate Islamic party of Erdoḡan (AK party) has some segments that are openly hostile to Israel. Netanyahu’s coalition also has a conservative bent which has not been conciliatory to those opposed to West Bank settlements and concerned with human rights issues in Gaza.

The animosity between Turkey and Israel was very evident at the annual Davos meeting in January 2009. At the meeting Erdoḡan walked off the stage after a very strident interaction with Israeli President Shimon Perez. Erdoḡan apologized to Perez minutes after this confrontation. However, the deed was done and the apology was downplayed. When Erdoḡan arrived at the Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport after the Davos incident, crowds were waiting to cheer him on concerning his confrontation. The political capital that Erdoḡan gained was significant. The Mavi Marmara incident was the culmination of tensions between the two countries. On both sides, there was a disregard for proper diplomatic conversation and letting internal politics enter into their traditional cooperation.

There are some accusations that Turkey is trying to dominate the region. Erdoḡan administration is courting the other Middle East states by taking an anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian stance. In the land of duplicity, Turkey is playing a dangerous game, but is well-adapted to the complicated web the Middle East has been for millenniums. U.S. diplomats are often baffled by Turkey because they do not understand its history and national interests. On another spectrum, the region has a tendency for historical grievances in the area to fester, to the point where they hinder reconciliation. Such is the case in the diplomatic impasse between Turkey and Armenia.

Meanwhile, adding to the tensions in the region, is the anarchy occurring in Syria which is sending refugees into both Turkey and Jordan. There have been rockets fired into Israel, resulting in Israel hitting some key targets within Syria. There is also a fear that the conflict will bleed into Turkey, Israel and Jordan.

Before the apology by Netanyahu, the Mavi Marmara incident was used by both Turkish and Israeli politicians at home to gain political capital. However, the underlying security issues for both countries, in light of the anarchy in Syria, were becoming more important with refugees streaming into Turkey and possible incursion of Syria into Israel. There was a need to break the impasse. The pretense of the U.S. forcing the hand of Netanyahu to apologize to Erdoḡan was a necessary opening for all parties.

The reason for the urgency of the U.S., to make sure Turkey and Israel normalized their diplomatic relationships, was most decidedly the continuing civil war in Syria. There is little doubt that  the U.S. is lining up possible allies in the case of an intervention in Syria.

The U.S. has a base in eastern Turkey which to launch jets. The Turkish and Israeli air forces might also be called into action. Ground forces from both sides would be a last resort, but this is probably also on the table. Turkey has one of the largest standing armies in the region.  A diplomatic impasse between Turkey and Israel would greatly hamper any type of joint military action in Syria.

An invasion by the U.S., Turkey and Israel would certainly bring down the Assad government. There is little doubt that the message has been received in Damascus.

Also, in the background is the use of Turkish airspace by Israel to bomb nuclear facilities in Iran. In 2008, Charles Krauthammer ( a Conservative columnist) stated on National Public Television’s “Inside Washington”: “The Israelis would not attack over Iraq. The way to go is through Turkey. When Israel attacked the reactor in Syria, it went up the Mediterranean and through Turkish air space. And everybody understands that’s where it would come from. (Inside Washington, 23  Novemeber 2009.)”

In 2009, an anonymous high ranking Turkish official stated that, “Turkey would never signal its willingness to accept such an air strike by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would immediately shoot down any aircraft violating its own space en route to Iran, which he described as a neighbor and important trading partner (Zaman Newspaper, April 2009.)”

The apology and reestablishment of diplomatic relations may lead to a reversal of Turkey’s stance on this issue. It may also be a smoke screen to obscure a possible covert cooperation with Israel in the event that a bombing mission was necessary.

In this one moment, with the brokered settlement by Obama between Netanyahu and Erdoḡan, a possible invasion of Syria and better access to Iran by Israel to bomb its nuclear facilities became a much easier. The military support to both countries by the U.S. and its economic aid to Israel was understandably what made this all come to fruition.

Teddy Roosevelt’s statement, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” might be reinterpreted  in this case to mean “carry big military bucks to persuade your recalcitrant allies to get into line while speaking of cooperation and mutual interests.” In play was also a recognition by both Israel and Turkey that their snipping must end in the interest of their mutual national security and possible sovereignty violations.

The President ended his final leg of his Middle East tour in Jordan. The security issues and the Syrian refugee problem are of utmost importance to  King Abdullah II of Jordan. The reconciliation between Turkey and Israel removes a major barrier which was necessary in the future plans. Jordan has friendly relations with Israel, but also contains a significant Palestinian population. While the media made sure that they showed all the photo opportunities and “sound bites”, the solidification of an alliance between Turkey, Israel and Jordan was the real reason for Obama’s trip.

Works Cited:

Bennhold, Katrin. “Leaders of Turkey and Israel Clash at Davos Panel.” New York Times. N.p., January 29, 2009. Web. 23 March 2013.

Bozkurt, Abdullah. “Ankara won’t allow Israel to use Turkish airspace in attacking Iran.”N.p., Today’s Zaman. 29 April 2009. Web. 23 March 2013

Harris, Paul, Shabi, Rachel, and Beaumont, Peter. “Gaza flotilla attack: A week that changed Middle East politics.”N.p, The Guardian (Originally published in The Observer). 5 June 2010. Web. 23 March 2010.

“Israeli PM Apologizes to Turkey after Obama Push.” Hurriyet Daily News. N.p., 22 Mar. 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

“Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.” Holocaust: A Call to Justice. N.p., N.d., Web. 23 March 2013.

“Report: Israel may offer military aid to PKK to punish Turkey.” Today’s Zaman. N.p.,  9 September. Web. 23 March 2013.

Rudoren, Jodi, Landler, Mark. “With Obama as Broker, Israelis and Turkey End Dispute.” N.p.,  New York Times. Web. 22 March 2013. 23 March 2013.

Schreiner, Ben. “Israel Enters the Syrian Theater Confronting Iran via the Third Option.”N.p.,  Global Research. 7 February 2013.Web.  23 March 2013.

Tisdall, Simon. “Turkey learns who its real friends are – so much for ‘strategic realignment.” N.p., ‘The Guardian. 27 June 2012. Web. 23 March 2013.

“Turkey: Israel has met our main demands.” N.p., 23 March 2013. Web. 23 March 2013.

“Transcript from Inside Washington with panelists: Charles Krauthammer (Syndicated Columnist), Colby King (Washington Post), Evan Thomas (Newsweek) and Nina Totenberg (National Public Radio) and moderated by Gordon Peterson.  ” WJLA TV Washington, D.C. 23 November 2008.  Transcript. 23 March 2013.  (also “Israel May Attack Via Turkey.”Hurriyet Daily News. N.p., N.d., Web. 23 March 2013.

Michael Andrew McAdams (20 Posts)