In March, just before he was to end his visit to Israel, President Barack Obama placed a call to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, handed the phone to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel and initiated the public phase of reconciliation between the two American allies.
Now, that process seems to be faltering. And it appears that Turkey is to blame.
The break between the two former friendly countries had to do with Israel’s much-maligned attempt in 2010 to stop a Turkish-led flotilla trying to reach Gaza to break the Israeli blockade of the territory. The Israeli raid on one of the ships led to nine Turkish deaths. In response, Turkey severed ties with Israel and demanded an apology and compensation for the deaths before relations would improve.
Israel balked at Turkey’s demands until Obama placed his airport call, and Netanyahu apologized. Israel has since made offers of restitution. But Turkey has not followed through on its promises to normalize relations with Israel and to cancel legal proceedings against military personnel who took part in the flotilla raid. Erdogan now says he no authority to block the prosecution of the Israelis. And following a reshuffle of diplomatic postings, the position of Turkish ambassador to Israel is unfilled.
With massive civil unrest across Turkey, Erdogan doesn’t want his constituents to see him as “too pro-Israel,” according to one report. And that concern seems to be at the heart of the tension with Israel, which pre-dated and was the motivation for the Gaza flotilla.
Hostility toward Israel even seems to trump Erdogan’s concern for the Palestinians. Erdogan apparently will make his long-discussed trip to Gaza tomorrow, without stopping in the West Bank. Under his current travel plans, Erdogan will embrace Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers and shun the more moderate Palestinian Authority. And, of course, the failure to visit Netanyahu while present in the immediate neighborhood is part of the same message.
It is clear that Turkey is in no hurry to improve relations with Israel. While Obama was able to get Erdogan to the phone, he doesn’t appear able to get him to the table. This is particularly troubling since Turkey and Israel share common concerns about the Syrian civil war, Iran and other pressing problems in the region, and some coordinated positions could be helpful. But as occurs all too frequently in the Middle East, we appear destined to witness yet another missed opportunity. That’s a shame, and that hardly seems to be in the long-term interests of Erdogan’s constituents.