First published by Haaretz
Three years of grave crisis in the diplomatic, political and military relations of two of the United States' important regional allies were brought to an apparent end in a phone conversation. President Obama's mediation of the fateful call between Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Erdogan was the most important tangible success of his trip to the Middle East, besides his brilliant public relations visit to Israel.
Netanyahu "expressed Israel's apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury [during the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010] and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/non-liability." Erdogan accepted the apology “on behalf of the Turkish people” and in his conversation with Netanyahu emphasized the two "nations’ shared history and prior eras of friendship and cooperation."
Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu then explained that Israel had "systematically fulfilled" each of Turkey's preconditions to normalizing ties with Israel: "An apology, compensation and the lifting of the embargo on Gaza and its development." Indeed, Erdoğan's success in obtaining an Israeli apology was viewed as a 'diplomatic coup' by the Turkish media.
The effort of the two countries to mend the fences has gone on for three years already, but the last two months saw intensive negotiations which led to the breakthrough and which (according to Davutoglu) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a key role. The red line for the Turkish government was for Israel to give an apology, not just to express regret.
It seems likely that the main stumbling block from the Israeli point of view has always been the Turkish demand for the lifting of the Gaza blockade, and not the wording of the apology.
Listening closely to Netanyahu, it appears that Israel has achieved its goal of re-engagement with Turkey with a minimum of concessions: Israel agreed to "substantially lift the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and that this would continue as long as calm prevailed." And when calm does not prevail - when Gaza rockets hit Sderot during Obama's visit - Israel responded by closing the Kerem Shalom crossing on its border with Gaza and limiting Palestinian fishing to three miles from the enclave's shore.
Ironically, it seems Erdogan's reference Zionism as a crime against humanity at a UN conference in Vienna - just one day before Secretary Kerry's visit to Ankara at the beginning of March - may actually have provided the leverage that helped Obama to compel him to bow to American pressure to reconcile with Israel.
Kerry told journalists at a press conference with Davutoglu that "We not only disagree with it [Erdogan’s comment on Zionism], we found it objectionable." Erdogan had expected Kerry to invite him to meet with Obama, an invitation or which he had requested for some time, but one he did not receive. A U.S. official said that Erdogan's "remarks on Zionism hurt the bilateral relationship” and could influence negatively the White House and Congress.
As Obama arrived in Israel, Erdogan made an effort to clarify his controversial remarks in an interview with the Danish Politiken: “I understand that my statement in Vienna led to some debate. But no one should misunderstand what I said. Everyone should know that my criticisms on certain issues, especially Gaza and the settlements, are directed at Israeli policies." Netanyahu said he had seen Erdogan's recent interview in the Danish newspaper and that he appreciated his words. The Obama visit's aura led to a remarkably rapid de-escalation, to the point where it was possible to say: Incident closed.
Interestingly, Turkey asked for support from Hamas to recognize as a "victory" the reconciliation with Israel. Hamas applauded Erdoğan for having won the apology from Israel and informing Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal that Netanyahu promised to "lift the siege on the Palestinian people".
According to Netanyahu, the moment-by-moment intensification of the crisis in Syria was the main consideration” for the reconciliation move. Indeed coordination and cooperation between Israel and Turkey on the Syria file, especially regarding chemical weapons and the jihadist threat, are of major importance.
Further than that, the support of Turkey, or at least its benevolent neutrality, will be of the utmost importance in case of a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Turkey is part of the U.S.-NATO anti-missile shield defending the region, Europe and Israel from an Iranian long-range missile threat. Erdogan, for his part, is in need of support in the Syrian quagmire, as the potential scenario unfolds of Kurdish autonomy, an Alawite pro-Iranian mini-state and a jihadist presence threaten Turkey's internal stability. Turkey is also in conflict with Iran about the future direction of Iraq.
Moreover, Erdogan has embarked on the most difficult political mission in his career, the attempt to solve what some have called Turkey’s "Achilles heel"- the issue of the Kurds - peacefully, by achieving a ceasefire agreement with the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. This is a long painful process which is opposed by many in Turkish nationalist circles and could be negatively influenced by events in Syria, Iraq or Iran.
Although the diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and Turkey could be reestablished quite quickly, the sensitive military and strategic cooperation is much more difficult to achieve, in view of the deep changes in the ranks of the Turkish military and intelligence echelons and of mutual mistrust – which will not disappear overnight.
Davutoglu evaluated that: "The normalization process with Israel would strengthen Palestine’s position in the peace process," and promised to closely monitor lifting of the Gaza blockade.
The first test for Erdogan's real intentions vis-a-vis Iarael will be his expected visit to Gaza in mid-April, where he is sure to be received as the next Sultan. The crucial question is how much support Erdogan will give to Hamas' ambition to become the sole major force in the Palestinian Authority, which it aims to do without renouncing its goal of liberating all of Palestine through the armed struggle. And regarding these intentions, it should be noted that ever since Turkey invited the Hamas leadership to Ankara back in 2006, Turkey's leadership has neither criticized Hamas' violent activities nor succeeded in influencing its strategy, whilst protesting loudly Israel's retaliatory actions. Erdogan's most recent comments, in which he ties the normalization of relations with Israel to full implementation of the conditions of the deal, suggests that the agreement reached is more tentative than concrete, and that a new age in relations is not yet here.